Monday, July 21, 2014

Why aren't the Swiss known for watering cans?

Dramm 10-liter watering can action shot. Check out those bold and beautiful French Marigolds!

Now that I own a Dramm 10-liter watering can, I can't imagine ever needing to buy another watering can. (Unless of course I lose the one I've got now, which seems unlikely given that it's bright red!)

Made in Switzerland (!), this watering can seems incredibly sturdy, well-made and perfectly balanced. It just feels solid.

I mean, the Swiss get all the well-deserved praise for making delicious chocolates and precise timepieces, but I think they're getting shortchanged on their watering can prowess.

Available in red or green colors (I recommend the cherry / fire engine red that reminds me of a red Swiss Army Knife), the 10-liter Dramm can holds over 2 gallons of water.

It's true that the can does not come with a rose - the sprinkler-type attachment that often fits on the end of a watering can. In fact, Dramm does not make a rose for this 10-liter can. On the bright side, the absence of a rose means you can water these large plants more quickly without waiting forever while the water sprinkles out. (That said, I'd suggest that you still take your time and try to disburse a gentle stream of water while tilting the can so that the nozzle is relatively close to the ground. Watering with a robust stream of water from a large height is a recipe for soil compaction, runoff, splashage (technical term that I just made up) and all sorts of undesirable calamities.

Full disclosure: Dramm sent me a complimentary watering can to test in the garden. In adding to the can, Dramm also sent me a complimentary solid brass adjustable hose nozzle for testing purposes.

My nozzle is American-made. And shiny. And powerful. 

The nozzle is Made in the USA and seems darn near indestructible. Although I didn't try it, I imagine I could probably run over the nozzle with my car and that it would be no worse for wear. Since the nozzle has so few parts, it easily comes apart for cleaning should any dirt start gumming up the works. Another bonus - brass doesn't rust.

Again, while the all-brass Dramm nozzle might be a bit more expensive than a plastic counterpart, I imagine it would be the last nozzle you'd need to buy. (Unless of course you lost it and needed to buy a replacement.)

In gardening as in other spheres of life, I believe it's generally a good idea to try to buy a few high-quality products rather than cheaper junk with a shorter shelf-life.

Dramm's products clearly fall into that high-quality, long-life category.

So would I recommend both products? Yes, but with reservations. With the watering can, just be aware that the lack of a rose means it's great for watering trees and shrubs, but not really suitable for spritzing seedlings. (You'd be likely to wash them away in a miniature tsunami.)

As for the hose nozzle, I think my expectations were misplaced or inflated. I had thought I would use it to water plants, but the stream of water emerging from the nozzle was so strong that I quickly switched back to my old leaky plastic nozzle with a wide range of adjustable settings.

Looking at Dramm's website, I see that the hose nozzle is advertised for "cleaning walkways, benches and equipment." That makes sense and I think the "powerful stream" of water produced by the Dramm nozzle would be ideal for any of those purposes.

Where to Buy: 

Naturally, both the Dramm 10-liter watering can and the adjustable brass hose nozzle are available via Amazon, as well as at many other online retailers and offline garden centers.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Are Hellbenders actually Canaries?

Take a good look at this Hellbender. You might not get a chance to see one for real in the wild.
Photo by USFWSmidwest

I read a couple of disturbing stories last Friday about the disappearance of the Hellbender, North America's largest salamander, whose populations are crashing in the wild.

What's causing the Hellbender decline? Scientists don't know for sure, but a likely culprit seems to be declining water quality. Since salamanders breathe through their skin and live in creeks and streams, they could be the canary in the coal mine indicating problems with our water supply.

So how can we help save the Hellbender? The Christian Science Monitor says "Researchers are urging landowners to plant trees and grasses along rivers to improve the water quality."

So that does mean you're off the hook if you don't live alongside a body of water? I doubt it. One way or another, much of the water that runs off our lawns and hardscapes during a storm probably ends up in a river, creek, stream, lake or ocean (unless it goes directly into a water treatment facility).

If all or most of the land on your property consists of short lawn and hard spaces that can't absorb water, you're going to have a lot of untreated runoff. If you spray herbicides (weed killers) or pesticides or fertilizers on your lawn, some portion of those treatments may wash off in a heavy rain and make their way into bodies of water.

So how can homeowners help?

1. Reduce the lawn and add more ornamental grasses, perennials, trees and shrubs that will slow down and absorb runoff during heavy rains, giving bacteria and other soil organisms a chance to sequester and clean the water. (These plantings can of course offer many other wildlife benefits - flowers for bees and butterflies, nectar for hummingbirds, berries for birds - while reducing the acreage we need to cut with polluting mowers.)

2. Stop spraying and treating the lawn with herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers. I'm not guilt-free here. I don't spray any pesticides or fungicides on my lawn, but living in a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses kind of neighborhood, there's a mandate to keep the lawn green and weed-free. But I'm trying to reduce the size of the lawn, because there's no mandate about what sorts of trees, shrubs, ornamental grasses and perennials I plant -- and if I plant those thickly enough, they'll do a pretty good job of suppressing weeds on their own without any spraying. (At least that's been my experience so far in the landscape beds I've already installed.)

Together, perhaps we can save the Hellbender. And ultimately, if the water is cleaner, we'll help ourselves too.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Can / Should Botanic Gardens Lead the Way to a Healthier Diet?

The shady, enticing patio of the new Hive Garden Bistro (photo courtesy of Denver Botanic Gardens)

I was excited to read the news from Denver -- the Botanic Gardens there recently unveiled an expanded and upgraded cafe called The Hive Garden Bistro.

Why the excitement? After all, I don't live in Denver.

I guess it's because I think botanic gardens can help lead the way to showing America how to eat a healthier, more local and more wholesome diet.

The part of the press release that really caught my eye was the idea that some of the produce for the dishes served in the cafe would be sourced from the adjacent Le Potager Garden and the Chatfield CSA.

CSA = Community Supported Agriculture. In my own part of Tennessee, I've seen CSAs offered by vendors at farmers markets, where customers pay a lump sum upfront at the start of the season in exchange for weekly deliveries of fresh produce chosen by the farmer. Farmers benefit from a reliable income stream. Customers develop closer relationships with the producers of their food, and they also get a first-hand idea of the risk involved in farming. If a heat wave or drought wipes out a crop, they might have a meager harvest some weeks.

The Chatfield CSA, I've just discovered, is a CSA that's actually run from a 5-acre working farm inside a 70-acre nature preserve and garden owned by the Denver Botanic Gardens in the Denver suburb of Littleton. Very cool!

But I might even be a little more excited by the idea that some of the produce that shows up on the plates at The Hive Garden Bistro comes from Le Potager edibles garden growing right next to the cafe. I'm hoping that will open the eyes and minds of some of the visitors to the garden - adults and children alike - who may have come to see beautiful flowers or dazzling Chihuly glass sculptures, but who will walk away thinking about a delicious meal they had at a cafe that was flavored using ingredients that they could actually see growing alongside the restaurant.

Le Potager edible garden (photo courtesy of Denver Botanic Gardens). Even though my own gardening style is much less formal and ordered, I love how Denver Botanic Gardens is showing that edibles can be ornamental too -- which of course is part of the essence of a potager!
(What sort of dishes will incorporate Le Potager ingredients? I'm sure the menu will change with the season, but right now I've been told that chard from Le Potager shows up on the cafe's hummus plate, lettuce from Le Potager and the CSA gets used in cafe salads, and there are plans to soon incorporate herbs from Le Potager into refreshing agua fresca drinks.)

I know that plenty of progressive restaurants are driving the locavore farm-to-table dining experience, and I applaud all of those efforts.

But I wonder if botanic gardens can play an especially important role in encouraging people to eat local, fresh fruits and vegetables?

After all, many visitors come to botanic gardens prepared to see something beautiful and to learn something new. Should every botanic garden have an edibles section so that visitors could how lettuce grows, how tomatoes ripen and measure whether the corn is as high as an elephant's eye?

My own experience - and I think the experience of many other folks - is that fresh-from-the-garden produce looks better and tastes better than mass-produced products that have been trucked, flown and shipped from thousands of miles away.

And when fresh food looks better and tastes better, it stands to reason people will be more likely to enjoy it and want to eat healthy fruits and veggies more often!

Simplistic? Perhaps. But I think there's some logic to that line of thought.

Of course, I believe that home grown produce tastes best. When you grow your own tomatoes and lettuce, that's when you really get excited about having salad for dinner. Again, I think botanic gardens can lead the way here, educating the public on edible gardening. That's exactly what Denver Botanic Garden is doing with a range of edible gardening classes on topics like succession planting, overcoming pest and disease problems and learning how to grow a year-round edible garden -- even in Colorado!

Finally, I hope that botanic gardens could encourage gardeners to look beyond the tried-and-true homegrown crops. Just as botanic gardens can open eyes and minds to trying new types of ornamental plants, I'd hope they could help people discover new and amazing edibles. For instance, before we visited Powell Gardens a few years ago outside Kansas City, neither my wife nor I had ever (knowingly) tasted mustard greens (Brassica juncea). We were both hooked from the first zesty bite! Now we've grown it at home several years and it's become one of our favorite salad and cooking greens. It's also easy-to-grow (our two plants volunteered this spring and we've got a bumper crop of seeds ripening in the garden) and reportedly packed full of nutrients.

What do you think? 

Should botanic gardens - which are typically strapped for space and resources - redirect some of their energy from ornamentals to edibles? 

Could this really make an impact on changing America's eating habits for the better? 

Personally, I give major props to Denver Botanic Gardens and hope that other botanic gardens - including our own Cheekwood here in Nashville - will follow in their footsteps!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Scott Arboretum Snapshots - Townhouse Crape Myrtle, Western Redcedar, Prairie Dropseed, Japanese Falsecypress and more!

A couple of weeks ago, I visit the Scott Arboretum on the campus of Pennsylvania's Swarthmore College with my sister and my father. In fact, we were lucky enough to be able to visit on a day when the arboretum was offering one of its free monthly tours. (The dates for these tours are posted on the arboretum's calendar.)

The arboretum was established 85 years ago and today there are many beautiful mature trees.

I've got to say I'm a little jealous of the students, faculty and staff who get to spend so much time on this beautiful campus!

Here are a few of the plants at the arboretum that struck my fancy:

One bee, so many flowers... I think this is a magnificent clump of Stachys officinalis, a.k.a. Bettony (but I'm not 100% sure on my identification)

A stately Chamaecyparis pisifera "Filifera" (Japanese Falsecypress). I understand that this variety typically grows around 30-feet tall (per University of Kentucky). Clearly I just got a shot of the trunk here, but I'd guess this tree was taller than 30-feet. I was interested in how bare it appeared at the base, since in the other shots I've seen of this tree, the canopy seemed fuller all the way to the ground.
Beautiful bark and fluted trunk on a Cladastris kentuckea, American Yellowwood tree

And here's a shot of the sun-dappled Cladastris kentuckea canopy. Just a beautiful tree. Can't understand why American Yellowwood is not more popular in commerce. Perhaps because the tree reportedly doesn't start flowering until it's 8-10 years old? But I've never even seen a flowering American Yellowwood and I'm still smitten with the beauty of its other attributes.

Here's an interesting relatively large-scale planting of Sporobolus heterolepsis (Prairie Dropseed) used as a lawn alternative. I love the texture, although I don't know whether this 'lawn' can hold up to foot traffic. 

Thuja plicata "Excelsa", Western Redcedar, gorgeous feathery foliage on this evergreen. I was under the impression that T. plicata preferred cool and moist forest conditions in the Pacific Northwest, but it seemed to be thriving in this Pennsylvania arboretum. I'd love to hear from other gardeners in the East - especially the Southeast - who might have experience pro or con with this species. 

Japanese Crape Myrtle - Lagerstroemia fauriei "Townhouse" -- Not your typical crape myrtle (the usual species is L. indica), the Japanese Crape reportedly grows bigger (up to 40-60 feet tall), has fragrant flowers plus excellent resistance to powdery mildew and artistically exfoliating bark. These crapes weren't flowering when we visited in June. In the Mid-Atlantic, I'm guessing they probably don't flower until late summer (August?), but the foliage, form and bark were beautiful enough that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to any mid-Atlantic gardener who had the space. Like many places in the East, the Philadelphia area had a brutal winter in 2013-14 and this mature Townhouse crape apparently made it through unscathed. On the flip side, reportedly has the chops to withstand the heat and seasonal drought in Florida too. What a tree!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

A Beautiful Bevy of Blooms in the Early July Garden

The hit parade continues into July.

All of these photos were taken this morning (July 3, 2014).

To all my U.S. readers, I send you early Happy Independence Day wishes!

A panicle of bright fuchsia crape myrtle blooms. In previous years, this crape has been stricken with powdery mildew. After pruning last year to open up the canopy, it seems to be faring better this year (so far). While the white Natchez crapes attracts loads of bees - particularly in the first few weeks of its bloom - I have not noticed any bees visiting this crape.

Bee on Agastache foeniculum "Golden Jubilee" 

I took a step back to give you an idea of the size of this one Agastache. It's HUGE and loaded with flowers. There are perhaps a dozen seedlings scattered around from last year's seeds -- and the plant didn't have nearly as many flowers last year. I wonder how many seedlings I'll get next year?! :-o

OK, no flowers here, but the foliage of Baptisia australis is looking lovely, cool and not-too-floppy, despite the fact that I situated it in too much shade.

Bumblebee visiting Cosmos bipinnatus

Dianthus gratianopolitanus "Firewitch". I did a little experiment a few weeks ago where I trimmed back the old flower stalks on one plant and left the other untouched. As you can see, both are experiencing sparse rebloom. I think the unpruned plant actually has a few more flowers, but the pruned plant looks neater. 

Bee on Gaillardia x grandiflora "Sunset Cutie"

Cheerful bright blooms on Heliopsis helianthiodes "Summer Sun". I wouldn't say it's a wildlife magnet yet, but as the plant gets bigger and more established, it's attracting more bees and birds than last year. 

Hibiscus moscheutos / Hardy Hibiscus. I think this is "Luna". So far, not as much sawfly damage as in previous years (knock on wood products), which means more flowers are opening and the foliage looks much healthier. 

Bee on annual sunflower. I order Lemon Queen sunflower seeds this spring. I seem to have gotten an assortment on random sunflowers of all shapes and sizes. Can't say that I'm devastated (many of them are pretty and interesting in their own ways), but I'm a little peeved.

Two small bees on a soaring annual sunflower over 6-feet tall.

Here's another giant sunflower - maybe 7-feet tall. Even though the flower hasn't opened yet, I thought the bud was so sculptural that it deserved its own portrait.

Here are two bees collecting pollen on a Cucumber Leaf Sunflower (Helianthus debilis Cucumerfolius). I didn't plant any of these seeds this year, which means this sunflower can self-sow in a 6b winter (low -2 Fahrenheit) without any insulating snow cover. The blooms are smaller on the Cucumber-Leaf sunflower, but the plants grow quite tall (~6 feet), start blooming a little earlier than the typical Helianthus annuus and are well-branched with lots of flowers per plant. The bees like the pollen, the gold finches visit for seeds, the squirrels seem to leave them alone.

Here's my row of self-sown Cucumber Leaf Sunflowers. Not exactly "front of border" height, but I don't have the heart to rip them out and I love the floriferous display!

Cherry tomatoes are ripening. These are Super Sweet 100s, purchased as seedlings. I also have lots of self-sown cherry tomatoes from previous years. I've done a pretty poor job of staking them this year, so what I really have is a jumble, but I imagine it will be a productive jumble if I can wade through the stems to pick the cherries. I also have some critter (squirrel? rabbit? chipmunk? groundhog?) that seems to be preying on the low-hanging fruit, both red and green.

No flowers here either, but I'm still loving the Viburnum dentatum foliage. This plant has gumption. I kept it in a garage all winter with barely any water. Not surprisingly, it died to the roots, but has since roared back from the roots with 2-3 feet of new growth and it's still going. I do notice (unhappily) that there seems to be some leaf damage. Perhaps the culprits are the lacebugs that attack a nearby Aronia melanocarpa? 

Bee on Vitex agnus-astus flower spike

Two more bees on Vitex agnus-castus (Chaste Tree)

Can't resist another shot of bees on the Vitex. When in bloom, this plant attracts bumblebees in particular from dawn to dusk!

A step back to give you an idea of the total number of flower panicles on the Vitex bush. This is its second full year in the garden, and after some judicious pruning, I'd say it's about twice as big this year as last year, despite our zone 6b winter (-2 Fahrenheit). It leafed out late - and even so the leaves were frozen to much by a late freeze - but as you can see, it's since recovered and thriving. I think it's added at least 2 feet of vertical growth and made lots of bees very happy!