Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Thou Shalt Not Murder (Crape Myrtles)

The horror! Murdered crapes with gnarly knuckles
Photo via woodleywonderworks

Why is crape murder such a terrible, terrible thing?

Well, for one thing, it mutilates the trees and makes them look awful in winter. And since crapes take a long time to leaf out (at least here in Tennessee), that means they're looking like death warmed over for about six months.

The other reason is that when you have a hard winter, plants that are stressed by brutal, repeated, extreme pruning will often have a harder time surviving and recovering than plants that were pruned gently or not at all.

To wit:

Here is one of our Natchez crape myrtles. Notice how it is fully leafed out and flowering in mid-June.

Natchez Crape Myrtle leafed out and flowering in mid-June in Middle Tennessee
Natchez Crape Myrtle leafed out and flowering in mid-June in Middle Tennessee
Bird in Natchez crape myrtle foliage
Here's a bird (not sure what kind) that was sheltering in the midst of the crape myrtle foliage on a hot day.

Bee collecting pollen from Natchez crape myrtle
The Natchez crape myrtle in full flower attracts lots of bees. (Not as many bees as the Hypericum, but lots of bees nonetheless.) I'm no expert on bee identification, but it looks as though the crape myrtle attracts bumblebees, honey bees and also some smaller native bees. The bees move so fast, that it's hard to capture them in a photograph, but if you look closely, you can see a bee in the middle-right section of the flower cluster in the center of this photo.

Now let's check out the murder scenes.

These are some other crape myrtles on our street, also in mid-June. Notice that these crapes all look pitiful.

I've seen others around town that looked equally bad or worse, but I wasn't about to cause a car accident stopping the car to grab a pic of the carnage:

Murdered crape myrtle
Murdered crape myrtle #1

Murdered crape myrtle
Murdered crape myrtle #2

Murdered crape myrtle
Murdered crape myrtle #3

Pollarded crape myrtle
Murdered crape myrtle #4. These are probably the most horrifying examples of the results of crape murder. Notice that these are older crapes that had been heavily pruned (or pollarded) for many years, resulting in the knobby scarred knuckles at the ends of the lopped trunks. In previous years, this strategy resulted in ugly-enough porcupine like growth in the spring. After this last harsh winter, the tree looks to have been killed to the ground. Sadly, it wasn't quite put out of its misery and now must endure the indignity of coming back from the roots, with the new skinny stems looking terribly incongruous among the dead stems from years past. What to do here? As with many murdered crapes, I'd say either shovel prune or cut down to the ground to start over with renewal pruning.

In a best case scenario, even when a tree is not damaged or killed through annual pollarding, such pruning will probably stimulate rampant suckering so that you end up with a crape that behaves like a wild bush:

Best case crape murder scenario - pollard crape myrtle with numerous suckers behaving like a shrub
Best case crape murder scenario - pollard crape myrtle with numerous suckers behaving like a shrub

Now I'm not saying that every single crape myrtle will die in a hard winter if it's pruned back severely year after year. It might depend on how many years it's gotten the chop or on whether it's in a sheltered location or how much pampering it gets during the growing season. There are lots of variables. But chopping crapes back year after year is not only a crime against aesthetics, it's also placing the plants at a disadvantage for coping with whatever Mother Nature throws at them.

Incidentally, if you'd like a crape myrtle that stays shrub-sized, there are plenty of dwarf crapes that have been bred for compactness. You'll save the time, hassle, waste and/or cost of annual pruning and your petite crapes will look healthier and more natural year-round.

Miniature crape myrtles
This landscaping bed isn't exactly my style, but despite the excess mulch and the dearth of plants, it's still miles better than the murdered crapes. Presumably these are miniature crapes that have been chosen so that they will not require annual butchering, er, pruning.

Incidentally, even some of the "semi-dwarf" crapes could get bigger than you think. Southern Living lists Acoma as a crape that tops out around 10-feet tall, but I've seen some mature Acomas that were probably at least twice that height.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Marvelous Mock Orange

Natchez Mock Orange in full bloom, May 15, 2014
Natchez Mock Orange in full bloom, May 15, 2014

Late last autumn, I went shopping at a local plant nursery and found a heavily discounted 1-gallon Natchez Mock Orange (Philadelphus x virginalis "Natchez") on sale.

I bought. I planted it on the Northwest side of the house where it replaced a crape myrtle that I'd chopped down. (It had been growing waaaaaaaay too close to the house. Now it's trying to grow back. I foresee lots more chopping in the future.)

This is only the Mock Orange's first spring here, but I've been really impressed with the way it covered itself with flowers.

Unlike some other Mock Oranges, Natchez does not have especially fragrant flowers, but it is considered a "prolific" bloomer. Definitely fit the bill this year.

Close up on Natchez Mock Orange flowers, May 15, 2014
Close up on Natchez Mock Orange flowers, May 15, 2014

My understanding is that Mock Oranges are often both tough and fast-growing. So far, it seems plenty tough. I haven't seen much (any) growth yet, but I guess they typically bloom on old growth, so now that the bloom is done, perhaps the growth spurt will come later this summer or in the autumn?

Incidentally, my Natchez bloomed  for almost a month this year and the flowers are self-cleaning. I particularly liked visiting the Mock Orange in the evening when the white flowers are outstanding in the gloaming.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A New Taste: Serviceberry

Amelanchier x grandiflora "Autumn Brilliance"
Amelanchier x grandiflora "Autumn Brilliance"
Photo taken at Atlanta Botanical Garden, May 2014

One of the things you start discovering when you dive into gardening and horticulture is just how few of the world's edible plants (i.e. plants people can eat) have been widely commercialized.

As a result, even if you've reached the ripe old age of 30-something (as I have), you can still have a brand new taste sensation.

In my case, it happened last month when I was visiting the Atlanta Botanical Garden and came across the marvelous serviceberry tree (Amelanchier x grandiflora "Autumn Brilliance") in the edible part of that garden.

Perhaps to the annoyance of the birds who were hopping from branch to branch gorging themselves on the fruit, my wife and I each snuck a few berries. They were very tasty!

Serviceberries (Amelanchier x grandiflora "Autumn Brilliance")
Close up on Serviceberries
Photo taken at Atlanta Botanical Garden, May 2014

I've been talking to some horticultural experts recently at botanic gardens around the country and several have recommended the serviceberry for both its aesthetic and edible qualities.

If you're looking to add some home-grown fruit to your garden with a versatile small tree that reportedly often has very nice fall foliage, Serviceberry could be just the ticket.

Robin amid serviceberry foliage
Look closely.
Can you spy the robin amid the Serviceberry foliage?
Serviceberries can feed the birds, while perhaps giving you some berries for your own table.
Photo taken at Atlanta Botanical Garden, May 2014

Friday, June 13, 2014

Happy as a Bee in Hypericum

We always hear about bees being happy in clover, but I think they seem down right ecstatic gathering nectar or pollen from the many blooms of Hypericum frondosum "Sunburst".

About 18 months after I added it to the garden, Hypericum has done really well for me here in Tennessee so far. It's planted on a steep hillside and has endured the cold, hear, drought and rains beautifully. Not too surprising, as it is (according to Missouri Botanical Garden) native to rocky hills and barrens from Kentucky to Texas.

Do you grow any of the Hypericums? If so, what has been your experience with them?

Monday, June 9, 2014

Atlanta Trip Report #4 -- Smith-Gilbert Gardens in Kennesaw, Georgia

Rosa floribunda "Scentimental"

The Smith-Gilbert Gardens in Kennesaw have a bonsai exhibit, a Camellia Garden and a 19th Century historic home.

But my favorite parts of this garden were the woodland trails (one of which leads to a shady nook by a cooling waterfall), the conifer collection and the delightful rose garden.

Here are some of the nicest roses that caught my eye -- or stimulated my olfactory system:

Hybrid Tea Rose "Heirloom"
The color is a bit garish and the flowers may be packed too tightly together, but it sure did smell good.

Abraham Darby, David Austin English Rose
Abraham Darby, a David Austin English Rose
To be honest, the blooms are a bit ... overwrought for my tastes.
Beautifully fragrant, though.
Dave's Garden reviewers report epic struggles and heartbreak with this one.
The review and comments are priceless at The Gardener of Good and Evil.

IMHO, the jewelry store can't hold a candle to this "Tiffany" Hybrid Tea Rose.
(My wife might disagree.)

"Pat Austin" English Rose

Bigleaf Magnolia, Magnolia macrophylla
Heading into the woodland garden, we came across this young Bigleaf Magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla)

Hand and Bigleaf Magnolia
According to the Missouri Botanical Garden, Bigleaf Magnolia has the largest simple leaves (up to 30 inches long) of any tree indigenous to North America.

Purple rhododendron in bloom
An unknown (but spectacular) purple rhododendron in full bloom on a shady woodland trail

Cephalotaxus harringtonia McCorkle
Yep, it's another Cephalotaxus (Plum Yew)! What can I say? I'm smitten by the genre. This is Cephalotaxus harringtonia, the same species I have at home, but I've never heard of this cultivar - McCorkle.  I did find it online at one (wholesale?) nursery in Michigan called Spring Meadows. According to the listing there, McCorkle will grow about 5 feet high by 6 feet wide.
Close up on foliage of Cephalotaxus harringtonia McCorkle
Close up on the delightful new growth in the foliage of Cephalotaxus harringtonia "McCorkle"

Chamaecyparis pisifera, Japanese Falsecypress, Sawara Cypress, Filifera Aurea
I was wowed by this bright, dense foliage of Chamaecyparis pisifera (a.k.a. Japanese Falsecypress or Sawara Cypress). The cultivar here was Filifera Aurea that the Missouri Botanical Garden says can grow slowly to 15-20 feet tall over many years

I decided to stand next to the tree to give you a better sense of its size. I'm approximately six-feet tall, so I'm guessing this tree was about 10-feet tall by 8-feet wide? It looks like it would be great for a privacy hedge, although the slow-growing quality means you'd need to buy a substantial tree to start or have a lot of time and patience.

This is the last of my four Atlanta trip reviews. (You can find links to the other reviews in the archive section of the sidebar.) I hope you enjoyed the journey! As always, I welcome your comments, questions and suggestions.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Atlanta Trip Report #3 - Mandarin Oriental English Garden

Garden pool at Mandarin Oriental, Atlanta
Beautiful formal pool in the middle of the English Garden at the Mandarin Oriental Atlanta.
Love the flagstone hardscape surrounding the pool. Very chic.

Despite being situated in the middle of Buckhead, one of the fanciest neighborhoods in the midst of urban Atlanta, where real estate values are probably stratospheric, the Mandarin Oriental Atlanta hotel has set aside a blissful bit of greenery - an English Garden where you can reboot and escape the stresses of the city.

The Mandarin graciously offered to host me on my trip to Atlanta last month. Which meant I had some quality time to get up close and personal with the garden. Here's what I found:

I saw some of the biggest, most beautiful Oakleaf Hydrangeas of my life in the Atlanta area -- and several of them were right in the Mandarin Oriental's garden. Check out those loooooooong flower panicles!

Blue spruce surrounded by hostas at the Mandarin Oriental garden
Here's a bold color combination - a metallic blue spruce surrounded by chartreuse hostas. Zowie!
(Incidentally, I've heard that blue spruces don't do very well in the Southeast, but they're available at local Tennessee nurseries and this one seemed to be doing fine in Atlanta. Any other Southeast gardeners care to chime in about their experiences with blue spruces?)

Remember my foliage posts (1 and 2) from last month? Here's more evidence that you can have a wild color palette even without flowers by combining blue spruce, purple Japanese maple, green hedges and a mix of yellow and variegated grassy groundcovers

Here's the same planting bed -- I just backed up a little to capture the wild Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) sprawling nearby. I liked the fact that not everything in this garden was trimmed to within an inch of its life. Now if only I could figure out why the Mandarin Oriental's Russian Sage is thriving while I had to cut mine to the ground for rejuvenation...
Rosemary hedge at Mandarin Oriental Atlanta garden
This Rosemary 'hedge' alongside the pool looked robust and healthy. Last year, the Mandarin Oriental Atlanta apparently had an entire herb section its garden. After a redesign, that herb garden is gone, but the chefs are planning to grow a few of their more frequently used garnishes in the garden this summer.

Of course, I didn't spend all my time in the garden. My wife and I had the chance to sample breakfast at the Mandarin Oriental's Cafe. I love the fact that the Mandarin's restaurant emphasizes fresh, local and organic cuisine.

This spicy cajun shrimp and grits dish used local North Georgia grits from Nora Mill. The grits themselves may  have been the creamiest I'd ever eaten. (Apparently the chef uses "a little" butter.)

Can't beat fresh-squeezed OJ - one of the best glasses I've had since I visited Valencia, Spain

The berries used to top the skillet french toast apparently are local and/or organic. Oh and the restaurant uses organic eggs too. So yeah, there's a whole lots of tasty organic stuff going down.
I should mention that you don't need to stay overnight at the Mandarin Oriental Atlanta to visit the garden. If you're having breakfast, lunch or dinner at the Cafe, feel free to spend some time in the garden before or after.

If you stop by to hear Friday night jazz at the Taipan lounge (8 p.m. to midnight), you can clear your head with a romantic stroll in the moonlit garden. (Presuming the moon happens to be shining that night, of course. Not even the Mandarin can make the moon appear on demand.) 

Here's a word to the wise -- if you do want to listen to jazz in the lounge, make sure to request reservations. It's a hot ticket and most seats were sold out early in the evening, although the room does clear out somewhat as the evening wears on if you want to stop by later on.

There's one other way to experience the Mandarin Oriental Atlanta's garden. The hotel will be throwing a summer garden party that is tentatively scheduled for July 3rd. There's no entry fee for this shindig, so if you're in the neighborhood, feel free to enjoy the ambiance, some live music and some creative libations prepared by a "guest mixologist" at the cash bar.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

How Hot Is It?

October Skies Aster blooming in May 2014
This aster has started flowering four months ahead of when it is "supposed" to bloom.

A comedian might say, "It's so hot that the catfish are already fried when you catch them."

But here in the Garden of Aaron, I'd put it this way:

It's so hot that Aster oblongifolius "October Skies" -- which every source I've seen says is supposed to start blooming in September or October -- started blooming about a week and a half ago ... in late May!

What's up with that?!

It has been kind of hot and very dry lately. Technically we received about 2.5 inches of rain in May, but that's what fell at the airport mostly in a two-day deluge. I don't think we received nearly that much here (though lacking a rain gauge, I can't say for sure). And temperatures have been running about 10 degrees above normal - in the high 80s to near 90 most of the past few weeks.

This is my first year growing October Skies aster, so I've no idea if this is normal behavior when October Skies is grown in the Southeast (the sources I've consulted describe aster behavior in New York City and Delaware).

Will October Skies flower from now until frost (which would be awesome) or will it poop out in the mid-summer heat? Stay tuned to find out!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Aliens in the Mist

Love in a mist seedpods and flowers
Take us to your gardener!

They're here!

But don't be alarmed ...  They come in peas. (Sorry, awful gardener joke.)

You've gotta admit, these Love-in-a-Mist seedpods look awfully extraterrestrial.

These are all self-sown plants, by the way. Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella damascena) is an annual flower that self sows robustly. So far, I'm liking it a lot, though I may try cutting off some of the seedpods before they mature so that next year's crop doesn't get way further out of hand.

That said, I've found that seedlings are easy to pull. Last year, the seeds sprouted in the fall and the plants stayed green and healthy even when temperatures dropped to below zero degrees Fahrenheit with no insulating snow cover. It was nice to have something green to look at in the depths of winter when the landscape was mostly brown.

When temperatures warmed, Love-in-a-Mist took off - rocketing upwards into a ferny, wispy mass that's been topped over the past week or so with intricate complex flowers that start off nearly white and mature to a deep dark blue.

I feel like the flowers lasted long last year, but this year they seem to be blooming in fast-forward, racing through their color changes and then producing their wild E.T. seedpods which will decorate the plants for months to come.

Close-up on Love-in-a-Mist seedpods
Pretty blue flowers. Weird and wild seedpods. That's Love-in-a-Mist for ya.