Monday, June 29, 2015

Luna in Bloom

Nine flowers on Hibiscus moscheutos 'Luna' (rose mallow)
Nine (I counted) flowers open at once on this Hibiscus moscheutos 'Luna' (rose mallow). That's the most flowers I've ever seen in one day on this plant!

After much anticipation, I looked out the window this morning and saw the rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) covered in giant flowers!

I believe this is the 'Luna Pink Swirl' cultivar that has been named a Louisiana Super Plant. And if it can thrive in the heat and humidity and rain storms of Louisiana, that bodes well for its ability to shine in Tennessee too.

On the other hand, gardeners in more northerly climes should note that H. moscheutos may be hardy as far north as zone 4! (Most sources list zone 5a as the hardiness limit, but Chicago Botanic Garden cites zone 4, and who am I to argue with the CBG?)

Close up on Hibiscus moscheutos 'Luna' (rose mallow) flowers

I think I've had this plant for 3 or 4 years now and it seems to get a bit bigger and better each year. The first couple of years, the foliage and the buds were attacked by hibiscus sawfly, but fortunately (knock on drywall) that seems to have been less of a problem the last couple of years. 

Perhaps the garden is in balance to the point where something beneficial is keep the hibiscus sawfly in check?

Also, interestingly, whereas something (perhaps the bunny below or maybe a deer?) devoured all the foliage on the Hibiscus coccineus (scarlet rosemallow) that I tried planting this year, the rose mallow has suffered very little nibbling.

Rabbit on path in Tennessee garden
Hoppy Monday...

According to BONAP, Hibiscus moscheutos is native throughout the Southeast, Mid-Atlantic and much of New England and the Midwest. Despite being a native plant with large, prominent flowers, I don't see it attract many (any) pollinators. Maybe other cultivars are better at attracting beneficials? 

It is very well-behaved in the garden. It has never self-sowed in my garden and shows no inclination to spread. About the only negative thing I can say about the plant is that it is late to emerge in the spring. But have patience, and you will be rewarded with gorgeous, plate-size, dramatic flowers. 

In the garden, these flowers tend to last for just a day (or part of a day) before being replaced the next with new flowers. As a cut flower, I think it typically looks good for at least a few days in a bowl of water. (Update - I was wrong. It still only stays fresh for about a day or two at most as a cut flower.) Makes a nice centerpiece, don't you think?

Hibiscus moscheutos 'Luna' (rose mallow) flower in glass bowl

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Saturday, June 27, 2015

Vitex and the Bees

Bumble bee on Vitex agnus-castus (chaste tree) flower spike
Vitex agnus-castus (chaste tree) attracts bumble bees (and other pollinators) from dawn to dusk

Chaste tree is not native to Middle Tennesse (it's actually native to the Mediterranean region), but even though I generally favor native plants, I think more people should plant chaste tree.

As you can see from these photos, it's one of the best plants in my garden for attracting pollinators, especially our native bumble bees.

It seems incredibly tough, fast-growing and drought tolerant. The foliage stays pretty pristine throughout the growing season. You can prune it hard during winter dormancy and it will bounce back better than ever the next year since it flowers on new growth.

I've heard some sources describe it as invasive, and it certainly does produce a lot of seed, but personally I've never seen a chaste tree seedling and the birds don't seem interested in the seeds, so I suspect any seedlings that did occur would pop up right around the parent plant. If it starts to self-sow aggressively at some point in the future, I will come back and amend this post, but for now it seems unlikely to become invasive, at least in Middle Tennessee. The concerns about invasiveness seem to be higher in Texas, for example, but even there, some reputable sources recommend the plant. Virginia Cooperative Extension says that there is no empirical data (at least in Virginia?) to substantiate an invasive claim for this plant.

Bumble bees on chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) flower spike
More bumble bees on a chaste tree flower spike

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Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Blue Bird and the Purple Coneflowers

'Blue Bird' rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) amid purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea)
'Blue Bird' rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) amid purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea)

'Blue Bird' hibiscus, that is!

I was inspired by a post on Deb's Garden to snap this photo of my hardy 'Blue Bird' rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus). 

Doesn't it look lovely surrounded by all the purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea)? 

(Why they're called purple coneflowers is a mystery to me -- I think they should be called pink coneflowers.)

The coneflowers attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds to my garden.

Sadly, the only wildlife that seems attracted to rose of Sharon so far are deer and Japanese beetles. Alas! 

Still, while I make many gardening decisions based on a plant's ability to support bees, birds and butterflies, I do make occasional exceptions -- and 'Blue Bird' is one of those exceptions. To earn that exceptional status, a plant must be tough, carefree and beautiful, and 'Blue Bird' ticks those boxes for me.

PS - Some rose of Sharons have a reputation for invasiveness. I bought 'Blue Bird' thinking it was sterile, but that was a goof on my part, because apparently it is fertile. Nonetheless, I have not noticed any seedlings yet. Right now, I don't find it onerous to remove spent flowers before any seedpods have a chance to form. Perhaps when the shrub matures, that task might be more onerous... I did buy a sterile 'Diana' rose of Sharon, but so far it seems less vigorous and the deer are more inclined to munch on it, so I don't know how many flowers it will produce this year.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Goldfinches Love Mexican Hats!

Colorful Mexican sombreros
Photo by Maria de las Mercedes

No, not those Mexican hats...

These Mexican hats (Ratibida columnifera)!

Goldfinches and Mexican hats (Ratibida columnifera)
My apologies if these photos are a little hazy - they were all taken through a windowpane.

Goldfinches and Mexican hats (Ratibida columnifera)
How many goldfinches can you spy in this patch of Mexican hats? I think I see at least five (four males and one female). At various times, I spied up to 8 or 10 goldfinches feeding in this patch, but this was the most I could get in a single photo.

Goldfinch and Mexican hats (Ratibida columnifera)

Goldfinch and chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus)
OK, this goldfinch is not feeding on Mexican hat seeds, but he is waiting on the branch of a chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) before swooping down into the patch of Mexican hats growing below.

Mexican hats are annual flowers, but they self-sow (somewhat vigorously) from year to year. I have many more Mexican hats in my garden this year than I did last year. And with more flowers, comes more bees. With more bees, comes more seeds. With more seeds, comes more birds.

And that's what makes the world go 'round.

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Monday, June 15, 2015

June Blooms Galore! Agastache, Geraniums, Blue Wild Indigo, 'Zagreb' Coreopsis, Johnny Jump-Up, Lantana, Mexican Hats and more!

Agastache rugosa 'Honey Bee Blue', an expert told me not to get my hopes up about this Agastache behaving as a perennial here in Middle Tennessee, but it came through our unusually cold winter and very wet spring without any complaints.

Welcome to June in the Garden of Aaron!

As I prepared this post, I took a look back at some previous June posts to see how things have changed in the garden over the past few years:

- There was the June 2012 post that I made in the midst of an awful drought and heat wave that stressed almost every plant in my garden (except for the crape myrtles, the French marigolds. I will say that it's interesting to see that the coneflowers were attracting lots of little skipper butterflies by late June 2012. So far, despite seeing lots and lots of bees, I've seen very few butterflies in the garden. Perhaps more will arrive in the next week or two?

- In June 2013, Gaura lindheimeri, love-in-a-mist and Penstemon digitalis 'Husker's Red' were rocking the house. Zinnias and sunflowers were just getting ready to burst.

- Later in June 2013, I posted photos of additional flowers - zinnias, coral honeysuckle, Monarda didyma 'Jacob Cline', cranesbill geranium, Agastache 'Golden Jubilee', Salvia 'May Night', Hypericum frondosum 'Sunburst', crape myrtles, Stachys officinalis, French marigolds (again), Alchemilla mollis, Bush's poppy mallow, lambs ear, gardenia, love-in-a-mist (again), Malva sylvestris 'Zebrina', Veronica spicata 'Giles van Hees' and purple coneflowers (again)

So before I dive into the June flowers (and some foliage) from this year, I thought it might be useful to give a quick recap on which of these plants I'm still growing in my garden and which have fallen by the wayside.

I've nothing against growing flash-in-the-pan shooting stars that have a moment of glory one year and are gone the next, but lots of gardeners (myself included) also prize durable and dependable favorites that will come back and even grow stronger and more beautiful from one year to the next. So, which of the June bloomers are still around in the 2015 edition of Garden of Aaron?

- Lagerstroemia indica, crape myrtle - Oh yeah. Bigger, better, stronger. Just starting to bloom now (no photos below), but should be glorious in a couple of weeks. No damage at all on my big, mature crapes over the last couple of winters with lows near zero, ice storms, etc. My secret? I don't murder them.

- Tagetes patula, French marigold - Yes, still persists in my garden as a self-sowing annual. I intentionally pluck and scatter the seed pods to help it spread. Despite sowing many seeds, I don't get many seedlings, but enough to help the plant persist in my garden. As long as it gets decent rainfall, it typically blooms for months. Last year, it was spectacular throughout the entire summer. This year, it is just getting started.

 - Echinacea purpurea, purple coneflowers - Yes, they continue to thrive and spread here. I love the fact that they attract bees, butterflies and birds. I had some issues last year with either a disease or a pest (aster yellows?) distorting some of the flowers, but I pulled the affected plants and so far I haven't seen any issues yet this year (knock on drywall). I've included a couple of photos below.

- Gaura lindheimeri, gaura has basically died out in my garden. It's a pity, because it was very drought tolerant and bloomed for a long time, attracting bees (and aphids, ladybugs and green lacewings). I think the soil was too heavy and/or the winters too cold and wet. I may try again with the all-white variety, which seems to have survived last winter just fine at my neighbor's property, even as she also lost her pink gauras.

- Penstemon digitalis 'Husker's Red', I feel a bit guilty, but I have to admit that I shovel-pruned this plant. I was not digging the short bloom period, and while it was semi-evergreen, I thought the foliage didn't look all that good in the winter. I have some regrets about this, but I've added some new penstemons to the garden (Penstemon x mexicali 'Red Rocks', which I'm liking much more and which has a much longer bloom season)

- Nigella damascena, love-in-a-mist, I'm actively trying to get rid of this. Yes, the flowers are beautiful. Yes, the seedpods are mysterious and exciting. BUT, it self-sows everywhere. The seeds germinate in summer or autumn. The feathery seedlings survived our cold winters without any issues and then it shoots up and blooms dramatically in the summer. The seedlings easy to pull, but when there are hundreds or thousands of them, it gets tedious. 

- Zinnia elegans, I still have a few zinnias growing in my garden, but I have not sowed any seeds recently, and they have sort of petered out. I think the last two cold winters in a row have prevented some self-sowing. I have mixed feelings on zinnias. In dry years (like 2012), they look awful without supplemental water, which I'm reluctant to provide (since I want to have a relatively self-sufficient garden). In wet years (2013 and 2014), they get powdery mildew and still look awful. (I tried a supposedly mildew-resistant zinnia species - Z. haageana (last photo in this blog post) - and was not impressed with the flowers or the disease resistance. It did not self-sow.) Still, maybe I'll sow some zinnia seeds next spring. I miss the butterflies they attract.

- Cranesbill geraniums, still grow them, still love them, they get better each year, I have one photo below

Geranium sanguineum, bloody cranesbill geranium, beautiful flowers, gorgeous foliage, trouble-free and attracts small pollinators (as you may be able to decipher from the blurry visitor in the flower on the left).

- Agastache 'Golden Jubilee', still thriving, self-sowing politely (well, perhaps a bit more than 'politely', but I wouldn't call it 'aggressive' or 'rampant' by any means)

Agastache 'Golden Jubilee' just coming into bloom in early June 2015

- Monarda didyma 'Jacob Cline', shovel-pruned it. It was spreading too fast, too far. And I didn't like the flowers. And I never saw it attract any pollinators. I think it might have gotten some mildew too. So there.

Salvia 'May Night', it's still hanging on, even giving a bit of rebloom this year. Hasn't really thrived, but has not croaked either. We tolerate each other.

- Stachys byzantina, lamb's ear, still have it, still love it, one of my 'Helene von Stein' cultivars even flowered this year (although it's not supposed to).

Stachys byzantina, lamb's ear, this 'Helene von Stein' cultivar is not supposed to flower. Apparently this one didn't get the memo.

Lamb's ear flowers are supposed to be attractive to bees, but I haven't seen any pollinators on these two flower stalks. Guess they didn't get the memo either. (One commenter on a previous post said that lamb's ear flower stalks reminded her of Medusa. That seems a bit harsh to me...)

- Stachys officinalis, betony, doing just fine, still have it, it's never really "wowed" me, but it's nice.

- Alchemilla mollis, lady's mantle, also doing fine, the clumps have gotten a little bigger, despite its reputation as a rampant self-sower, I've never seen a seedling.

- Gardenia jasminoides 'Jubilation', long gone, I think it was just too cold and windy for gardenia in my garden. (Gardenias have a reputation for being 'difficult' plants, so I may have killed it with gardening incompetence, but I'm going to blame the cold and wind.)

- Callirhoe bushii, Bush's poppy mallow, the rabbits did their best to kill this one, nibbling it down to the ground repeatedly, but it's come back every time and this year has some protection from other perennials that have grown up around it. It's a tough survivor that has won my respect and admiration. 

- Malva sylvestris 'Zebrina', this one the rabbits successfully killed. It's a shame, because the flowers were beautiful.

- Veronica 'Giles van Hees', this one sometimes melts out a bit in the summer, but it always seems to recover and come back just a little stronger and wider. It's growing on me...slowly.

- Lonicera sempervirens, coral honeysuckle, I had two vines growing on my front porch railings, they got very bushy and wild, one of them started suckering and/or layering, so I removed it. I kept the other one for now, but it had a bad case of aphids this year and even though ladybugs and other predators eventually showed up, a lot of the leaves and flowers still seem damaged. It's limping along. In years past, the coral honeysuckle vines attract hummingbirds, but I've barely seen any hummers this year (even though I have other flowers like Salvia greggii, autumn sage, that are supposed to attract them).

- Hypericum frondosum 'Sunburst', I had a landscaper install about a dozen of these shrubs on my front hillside. They seem to be a little short-lived. A couple have kicked the bucket and one of the others has some dieback. I don't find the plant all that attractive most of the year, but it's marvelous in bloom - covered with yellow puffball flowers that the bees go crazy over. Still, when I remove the ones that have died this autumn, I think I'll try to diversify the planting by replacing them with something else.

So I think that's a recap of where things stand with many of the plants featured in previous June blooms posts. Now here's what's blooming (or otherwise eye-catching) this year:

Baptisia australis, blue wild indigo (year 3 in the garden), seed pods

Coreopsis verticillata 'Zagreb' (year 2 in the garden)

Close up on 'Zagreb' with a small pollinator visiting one of the flowers.

Achillea millefolium 'Paprika, yarrow (year 1 in the garden), the rabbits did a number on it for a couple of months, but they seemed to have moved on, which has allowed the yarrow to resprout, spread out and put up flower stalks.

I'm 99% sure this is Agastache foeniculum, anise hyssop, I sowed some in spring of 2014 and got zero germination last year. This year, I've seen some pop up here and there, so I guess it needed a cold treatment to germinate? If you look closely in this photo, you can see a small pollinator has landed about 2/3 of the way up the flower.

Sisyrinchium angustifolium 'Lucerne', blue-eyed grass, this may not look flashy, but I think it could be one of my best additions to the garden this year. It looks like a grass (and of course it has 'grass' in its common name), but it's actually a member of the lily family, and it has bloomed non-stop since I planted it about two months ago. (The blooms do stay closed on cloudy days.) I wouldn't call it a pollinator magnet, but I have seen pollinators (especially small pollinators) visiting the flowers.

Here's another perspective on blue-eyed grass. It's native to Tennessee and throughout the Southeast, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest and New England. Charming!

Here's a purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and a small spider hanging out on one of the flower petals.

Echinacea purpurea, purple coneflower, at many different stages of bud and bloom

This Fothergilla (center) is being engulfed by a patch of Melissa officinalis (lemon balm, left). I think the Fothergilla is getting a little stressed out by the competition, so I plan to cut the lemon balm way back and/or pull some out, but I'd like to wait until it blooms first. It's just starting to come into bloom with tiny white flowers, but when this photo was taken (about a week ago) it had not yet started flowering. The flowers are supposed to be very attractive to bees. We shall see...

Viola tricolor, Johnny jump-up, heartsease, apparently these are prolific self-sowers in some gardens, but mine have sort of petered out after a few years. This is the only remaining patch. Perhaps I accidentally mistook some of the other seedlings for weeds and dispatched them mercilessly? It's possible. It's a charming, cheerful little perennial. I may try to sow it again in the garden someday.

Lantana camara 'Miss Huff', I'm trying lantana for the first time this year. Most sources say it's only hardy to zone 7, so I'm probably on the borderline, but 'Miss Huff' is supposed to be one of the more cold-tolerant varieties, so I'll keep my fingers crossed. I'm growing it both because it's floriferous and cheerful, as well as for its reported ability to attract butterflies, but I have not seen any butterflies (or any other pollinators for that matter) visiting it yet. Perhaps as the plants get bigger, they'll become more noticeable to the pollinating crowd?

I've got a lot of Mexican hats (Ratibida columnifera) growing in the garden this year. It's a perennial that also self-sows quite a bit. So far, the seedlings don't seem rampant, but it's spread around quite a bit. I feel a little trepidation about what happens next year... It's growing here next to some Gaillardia x grandiflora.

Not one perfect rose, but instead of one perfect Cosmos bipinnatus! Cosmos are annual flowers that volunteer from year to year, but never (for me) in overwhelming numbers. I often end up pulling some that volunteer in the 'wrong' place, but I let most of them grow wherever they sprout.

The flowers are not terribly showy on this species Viburnum dentatum (arrowwood viburnum). I'm growing two cultivars ('Chicago Lustre' and 'Pearl Bleu') in partial shade, and they both seem happier than this plant, but I can't tell if that's because the others are cultivars or because V. dentatum would really prefer partial shade in Middle Tennessee. Honestly, I suspect a bit of both.

So that's what is going on right now here. 

What are some of the standout bloomers in your June garden?

And how do this year's June bloomers in your garden differ from years past (i.e., which plants have joined the dearly departed and which ones have joined the show)?

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Lovely Lavender is a Bee Magnet!

Lavandula angustifolia (syn. L. officinalis) 'Hidcote', English lavender

One of my favorite plants in the June garden this year, 'Hidcote' English lavender seems to be thriving in its second year in the garden.

I picked 'Hidcote' because it is supposed to have some of the greatest cold tolerance of any lavender. It was basically evergreen last winter, although there was a bit of foliar discoloration (purpling) and wilting toward the end of the winter.

I followed the pruning instructions kindly provided in this excellent YouTube video by Sarah Bader from Lavender at Stonegate, which seems to have promoted a nice dense habit on the plant. I plan to do another major pruning this year right after the lavender has finished blooming in order to promote dense regrowth for next year.

As regular readers of the blog know, I have pretty heavy clay soil and I rarely do serious amending, so I was worried as to whether lavender could survive here. For instance, one Dave's Garden reviewer from Idaho who praised the plant said that lavenders require "hot, dry, rocky, sandy soil" and another in Kentucky described growing lavender on "sandy, lean and very well-drained soil with pea gravel on top."

Well, I didn't do any of that. I just plopped three lavender plants into my regular clay soil, that I may have amended (can't recall) with some soil conditioner. So far, they all seem to be fine, having survived an unusually cold winter and a very wet spring. Oh and despite the fact that NCSU says they "require" perfectly well-drained soil and full sun, my lavender plants are also getting a considerable amount of shade (morning shade from the shadow of the house, afternoon shade from a couple of big crape myrtles).

I'm not saying any of this to brag. For all I know, my lavenders are at Death's door and just putting on a brave show of it. But for now, they seem to be thriving, despite the fact that I've placed them in less-than-ideal circumstances. I'm sharing this fact so you all can know that if I haven't killed lavender (yet) then it may be tougher and more versatile than some books and other gardening sources suggest.

OSU hints at this adaptability, indicating that L. angustifolia may actually be able to tolerate partial sun, as well as "various soils and soil pHs."

One of my favorite things about lavender is just how popular it is with bees - especially bumblebees. All day long and well into evening, I usually can count on spying around 6 to 8 bees busily harvesting nectar and pollen from the flowers.

A study at the University of Sussex confirmed that bees are highly attracted to lavender flowers.

My camera isn't all that great at capturing the speedy bees as they bumble their way through the lavender flowers, but I tried my best to snap some shots that would give you an idea of lavender's appeal to our fuzzy, buzzy friends:

'Hidcote' English lavender and bumblebee

Lavandula angustifolia 'Hidcote' with bumblebee (Bombus spp.)

Bumblebee (Bombus species) on English lavender
PS - If anyone has advice on harvesting lavender for use in potpourris or cooking, I'm all ears!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Hail to the (Snow) Queen!

Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) flowers fade from white to pink

'Snow Queen' oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) that is...

Well, I think this is 'Snow Queen'. I had been laboring under the false impression for a couple of years that I had planted H. quercifolia 'Snowflake', but I recently learned (thanks Deb!) that 'Snowflake' is double-flowered, whereas mine is clearly single-flowered.

Whether this is 'Snow Queen' or a pretender to the throne, she's surely a beauty. Love the way those white flowers are growing all pinky as they fade!