Monday, October 20, 2014

Fall Clean-up: The Annual Debate

I am of the gardening school of thought that advocates leaving spent perennial foliage through the winter and cutting it back in the early spring. There are number of reasons for this—providing food and shelter for birds and other wildlife, maintaining some color in the garden once flowers are done blooming, having a landing place for snowflakes as well as brown matter to contrast with those snowflakes, in the hope of achieving that elusive "winter interest" in the garden, etc.

Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum) seedheads stand 6' tall...when dusted in snow they exemplify "winter interest"
Personally, I have rarely seen birds eating the seeds of my spent plants, although in late summer the goldfinches were feasting on purple hyssop seeds. But I also get the sense that old foliage protects plants through the winter, maybe helping to prevent frost heave and shielding the plant from freeze/thaw cycles. I don't know, it's just a hunch.
'Purple Emperor' sedums with prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) photobombing

However, all those good reasons/intentions do not supersede the reality of dealing with straight-up ugliness in my garden. Essentially, if spent foliage just looks awful, I'm getting rid of it in the fall. Yes, it will all look awful by February, but if it's sad and dilapidated in October there's no chance I want to keep looking at it as it gets soaked, frozen, and increasingly beat down by winter.
Purple hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) with vine-whose-name-I-can't-remember look good in fall and so get to stay

So today I cut back some barren sticks that used to be purple hyssop (I think the finches were done with them, guessing by the looks of them), some flopping stems of brown-eyed susans, and nameless hostas. 'Halcyon', 'Touch of Class' and 'June' all look good, or at least they're on the spectrum between not terrible and still got it. The nameless ones were riddled with holes and yellowing, but not in a good-festive-fallish way. They were feeding nothing but any slugs still lurking around.



'Halcyon' still hanging in there


Am I prioritizing good looks over ecological utility? Maybe so, but overall there are still plenty of food sources, shelter materials, root protectors, etc., still left in my garden. Plus, is it really a bad think to cut back monarda and peony foliage swamped with powdery mildew? Doubtful. Mildew will always be in the soil here, but letting more knowingly incubate under the fall blanket of leaves seems unwise. It's a debate each year about what stays and what goes!
Zizia aurea (left) and Coreopsis tripteris (right)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Garden Blogger's Bloom Day—October 2014

Forgive me garden, for I have sinned. It has been two years since my last blog post.

Garden Blogger's Bloom Day seemed like an auspicious day to get back to it, so here I am! Although admittedly there isn't much still in bloom. However...

Aster shortii
These short's asters are making a hesitant comeback after being voraciously mowed down by rabbits (and likely other animals) during a drought a few years ago. I'm not sure what made them so appealing, but their wholesale destruction at the time led me to believe they were done for. But, like so many garden surprises, a few seeds or runners must have survived because they've been shyly appearing the last two years. Much smaller than before, they hide amongst the spent plants and the fence in this prairie border as if to say, "Are the rabbits gone yet?" (Spoiler: they're not gone, they've multiplied but seem to have plenty of other food sources.)

I'm relieved and happy to have these late-season blooms with their cool blue-violet color back. With all the rain we've had the last two years, it's hard to imagine a time when conditions were so dry that animals needed to devour any and all stems and leaves that might be holding moisture.

Solidago ulmifolia
 A few elm-leaved goldenrods are still blooming. I'm a huge fan of these plants because they flower profusely in dry shade, but I would have to warn you that they are aggressive, bordering on invasive. For me that's no problem because the dry clay in shade kills almost everything I try to grow, or at least causes it to grow weakly, so if a plant can colonize in those conditions, be my guest!
Every one of those little yellow florets becomes a puffball of seeds

And indeed, they've spread to become the major feature in the dry shady section of my front border. For those who would prefer to check their spread, deadhead the plumes as they go to seed. I'm pretty sure the prodigious seeds production is what allows these plants to spread so extensively.

Ruellia humilis
Speaking of seedheads, check out these wild petunias that have gone to seed! No they're not a bloom technically, but I had never seen these go to seed before and it's delightful, reminiscent of another low-growing prairie favorite of mine, Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum).

And for good measure, here's some colorful foliage of Solomon's seal:
Polygonatum oderatum

While also not a bloom, these beautiful yellowing leaves capture where the garden is at right now, in mid-October. Happy Bloom Day!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

When Will I Learn?

Every fall I say never again, and a year later I'm right back in the same place. Every spring I swear I won't put myself through the heartbreak, and seven months later I've convinced myself it will never happen again. I'm talking about spring bulbs, notably tulips, which I've fallen hopelessly and stupidly in love with over the last few years.

But planting bulbs six inches down in rocky clay is absolute hell. Or, more accurately, digging to plant those bulbs is hell. And while the flowers thrive admirably in the terrible soil (part of why I keep putting myself through the misery), they are all too often cut down just as they're about to burst into bloom, thanks to the abundance of rabbits and other rodents around here.

And then there's the forced bulbs. Potted hyacinths are intoxicating, in both form and fragrance. Beloved tulips, the finicky Triumph varieties that are drool-inducing in catalogs but really just high-effort annuals in the garden, are ideal for potting and forcing, which is by its nature a one-time deal, an excuse for palette-defying colors and experimentation that is only justifiable in the depths of winter.

But the fungus gnats! Every year they grow in intensity! I have no choice but to let the pots overwinter in the musty garage...there is no greenhouse, cold frame, basement, or cool closet where they could possibly go. And in that same vein of helplessness, I cannot banish the fungus gnats from the garage, even when I leave the potted bulbs almost completely dry throughout the winter, as I did last year.

So what is to be done? Well, in terms of the potted bulbs, it's to re-focus and go small. I potted only five 'Brown Sugar' and five 'Gavota' tulips and am taking a year off from hyacinths (having to throw them in the compost after the house became infested was so painful anyway that a break is good to heal that wound).

I developed the above contraption so that the pots can dry out on the patio, not in the garage where the fungus infestation would surely begin. And the wire mesh (held down unattractively but effectively by a hose and doormat) will hopefully keep out the rodent life until the soil dries up. At that point, the plan is to move the pots to the garage so they don't get destroyed by the cold temperatures, spray the top of the soil with chamomile tea (recommended by many gardeners for keeping fungus gnats at bay), and then displaying these pots outdoors in April, so even if they are infested with the damn gnats, the chilly spring air can take care of it.

As for toiling in the clay, I did it again but on a smaller scale than the last three years. I planted only 10 more 'Dordogne' and 10 'Cum Laude'. The former are so beautiful that I couldn't resist adding more, and the latter are a seductive purple that will offset the yellow-pinkish-ness of the 'Dordognes' at the end of the tulip season. It was hard work, but I've accepted the risks involved and plan to arm myself with hideous-smelling Liquid Fence again and hope for the best. I guess it's that "try again next year" attitude that is inherent to gardeners!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Not Cool

So far it's been a rather dismal year for cool-season edibles. We went from winter straight to mid-80s summer conditions (which was tough on my seedlings), back to rain and cold (which they survived, but it inhibited their growth), back again to hot, humid summer.
 Most of my lettuce seedlings fizzled, and the broccolis aren't going anywhere. I did get a couple small heads of Tom Thumb butterhead and a few Rough D'Hiver romaines may make it. But most will bolt or wilt before reaching full size. What's worse, my cilantros are stunted by all the heat and may be too small to bolt into the pretty white umbels that give them their second life in the garden.

On the bright side, I'm hoping for a banner year for heat-loving vegetables, like tomatoes, chili peppers, and squash. How have your cool-season veggies done?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Belated Bloom Day

Traveling caused me to miss the official Garden Blogger's Bloom Day for May, hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. But like gardeners all across America, I am enjoying the explosion of spring blooms! Without further ado...
My spring stalwarts, native columbines, are blooming...
...as are golden alexanders (Zizia aurea)
And fellow carrot-family member, Taenidia integerrima. See how similar they look with their yellow umbels? The latter likes shade and can tolerate dryness, however, while the former likes moist sun.
Some prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) is still in its "flower" stage, prior to forming the "smoky" seedhead.
Salvias are starting to bloom too...
...but best of all is saved for last! Proving the old adage about good things and those who wait, after three long years my 'Twilite' Prairieblues baptisias are blooming!
Ahhh, worth the wait! Also blooming: Peonies; Heucheras; Chives; Camassia (mostly finished)

Monday, May 7, 2012

Damn-ping Off

My second round of seedlings was just hit with damping off. I tried to salvage what I could with a frantic planting effort this evening, but without a hardening off period, survival doesn't look good. (What's with seedling activities being followed by the word "off"?) And that's assuming the seedlings I planted aren't carrying the fungus with them! Twelve baby cabbages are all lost, as were my basils and coleus. The only silver lining is that I have more seeds to direct sow. But after successfully avoiding damping off for the last two or three years (and in an earlier round of seedlings this year), it's disappointing to say the least. So if you're starting seeds, make sure they have good circulation! Next year, I'll need to look into getting a fan.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Wildflower Wednesday: Look Closely

Spring wildflowers are in full bloom, and not just the ephemerals. In the rain garden, golden alexanders (Zizia aurea) are happy with the recent (much needed) rain,
and sedges (genus Carex) are "blooming" too.
Columbines are just starting to flower...
...and these native geraniums are shyly avoiding the camera. I planted a number of these in the shady part of my front garden, but only this one seems happy. I'm hoping the others are just in their "creep" year and will be more robust by this time next year.
Also sulking after being moved around last year are the shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia)...
...but the prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) makes up for those other poor showings. I never get tired of these unique flowers, and I'm hoping the camassias bloom soon enough to catch up with them. The combo of prairie smoke and camassia was one of my (few) design successes in this border! Many spring wildflowers require close inspection to really appreciate them. These are not the big, bold coneflowers and goldenrods of summer! For example, my favorite unknown native, Taenidia integerrima, is just starting to open its puffy yellow umbels...
...and wild ginger (Asarum canadense) hides its jug-shaped flowers under its expansive leaves. The flowers won't last long, and it's definitely the foliage that matters with these plants. But look close and you will find these surprises! For more wildflowers this Wednesday, check out Clay and Limestone where Gail hosts this monthly showcase!

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