Friday, June 26, 2015

Pots and plants

Finally, the weeds are under control and I’m getting caught up on planting. I fully intended to plant fewer containers this year, but a quick count yesterday revealed over ninety. It sounds ridiculous, although it might not appear to be that many to a casual observer because the total includes window boxes, spare pots, and odd stuff lying about the yard. Still, they all have to be watched and watered. Obsessive compulsive? Not me. It’s all the fault of hybridisers forcing new plant varieties on me, plus there are old favourites that I always have to have.

The challenge is trying to have them get along with each other in the same pot. The old rule is one trailing annual, one mounding, and a spiky plant in the middle. Not for me. There are no rules in a garden as far as I’m concerned, and there’s no reason the plants have to be annuals. I’m quite happy to grow shrubs in pots or stick perennials in the mix. Many clematis, for instance, are recommended for patio pots.

If there’s a plant that’s caught my interest this year, it’s succulents. I’m using a couple of galvanized

tubs to hold my new collection. Most are varieties of Echeveria, Sempervivum, or Aeonium. They’re often confused because varieties of each can all resemble the more familiar hens and chicks (Sempervivum), but it’s important to note that Echeveria and Aeonium are not hardy. They can, however, be over wintered as houseplants. in our climate (zone 5)

Hybridization has produced a number of fascinating forms that mix and match beautifully. The leaves form rosettes that are ruffled or wrinkled, in contrasting shades of pink, grey, and purple. I have my groups planted in a moderately fertile, loose, almost sandy soil. To prevent the lower leaves from rotting, I’ve mulched the surface of the soil with fine gravel to keep it dry. Grow in full sun for best results.

I find it helps a lot to know the conditions in which plants originated. Sometimes just the country will give a general idea. Many Echeveria are native to Mexico, so right away it’s hot food, siestas and sandy beaches that come to mind — okay, hot and dry. Similarly, Aeonium hale mainly from the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, another vacation destination with Spanish overtones — sounds sun, sand, and sangria to me. Sempervivum, meanwhile, are found in southern Europe, North Africa, and the near east. What all these plants have in common, besides belonging to the Crassulaceae family, is the ability to store water in their leaves. This allows them to survive dry periods, but they do need to be watered well when the soil dries out.

Speaking of soil drying out, and even though there hasn’t been much chance of that lately, it’s important to remember to mulch. If there’s a patch of soil visible anywhere in my garden or in a container, it either gets a plant stuck into it or it gets mulched. Mulching helps soil retain moisture and suppresses weeds. Considering the cost of water saved, it doesn’t make sense not to mulch. In addition, organic mulch will break down and feed the soil — a horticultural win-win. It even comes in bright red for those who have a hankering for that red Georgia clay look.


Mulch is readily available in bags from the grocery store if you have a small area or in huge, more economical bulk bags for larger areas. I have one waiting in the driveway that should take care of the front yard — and maybe my lower back. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Weed em or Weep

In many respects, it’s been a perfect spring. The cool start with only a couple of days of bloom blasting heat allowed spring flowering bulbs to appear on stage long enough to receive a standing ovation. We did have a nasty frost in May, which punished the keeners who planted annuals too early. It also severely abused one of my tender hydrangeas — ‘Big Smile’.  It survived winter under the snow, sprouted leaves in earnest, and then lost them all to the frost. Guess who isn’t smiling now.

The good news is the regular rainfall this June. Instead of having to water at every legal opportunity to ensure new stuff actually grows after I planted it, as was the case the last few Junes, I’ve been watching my rain barrels overflow. The frequent rain is tough on farmers trying to harvest hay, but at least the corn is racing skyward, as is a columbine in my garden. It normally grows to about waist height, but thanks to the extra moisture and perhaps a little too much compost, it’s outpaced the nearby delphinium and is now as tall as I am, tall enough that I’ve had to give it a ski pole for support.

Everything is growing well in the veggie garden too, especially the zucchini. I like to see enthusiastic plants, but with zucchini, there’s a fine line between a good harvest and a disposal problem.

But, along with the good news goes the not so good, and the bad, and the worse. This weather has created perfect conditions for opportunistic vegetation, that is — you guessed it — weeds. When I say weeds, I mean anything that sprouts where it I don’t want it to sprout. Trouble is, I swear every seed that ever floated into my back yard, plus every seed produced by plants actually growing in my garden has sprouted. This is because they were protected this past winter by a good snow cover. With all the rain, germination has been guaranteed.

It’s the weeds in the cracks in the patio and pathways that are the problem. Out front, the gravel paths are especially susceptible and have taken on the look of an urban wasteland.

If you’re faced with out of control weeds, there are options. Plenty of mulch is a fairly easy solution for most flowerbeds unless the weeds are outnumbering preferred plants, as can be the case if a bed has gone untended. The only solution is to dig out the good plants, replant elsewhere temporarily, then cover the whole bed with plastic sheeting to smother out the weeds.

If things are especially bad, it may mean leaving the plants in and sacrificing everything. The plastic will need to stay in place for as long as a year, but it does the trick. As for weeds in pathways, I use a crack weeder, a hook shaped knife that works very well, especially after a rain.

Using boiling water, vinegar, or even salt to kill weeds is often suggested, and they do work to some degree, but too much of the latter pair can be harmful in a garden. Another alternative is a flamethrower — not a military version, but a small blow torch. Keep in mind that this will contribute to your carbon footprint, so use sparingly. Another trick is to sprinkle corn gluten on the pathways. It has been shown to inhibit the germination of seeds, though how well isn’t certain. I’ve tried this in the past and it did show promise. If all else fails, it’s keep on weeding and hope for a drought — or maybe not.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Plant in Haste and Regret . . .

I make the odd mistake around my garden when trying to choose the right plant for the right location. Sometimes the plant turns out to be the wrong colour, although I can live with most any combination, or sometimes the foliage is all wrong. Floppy foliage is fine providing there's flop room, which isn't guaranteed; I hate to see nifty little plants smothered by a new neighbour. Or, I'll make the mistake of filling in bare spots with bedding plants, only to see them vanish beneath the giant leaves of something that decides that this is the year it's going to be all it can be, which is usually the exception, rather than the rule.

So I'm confessing here that once in a while, I'm quite capable of making design errors, or I don't always make the wisest plant selection. Okay, maybe I excel occasionally in the "Ridiculous Things To Do In A Garden Contest". Have you entered? It seems I enter every year, usually modestly by planting something just slightly inappropriate, perhaps a plant that turns out not only to be aggressive, but verging on invasive, like the Campanula punctata 'Rubriflora' (spotted bell flower) I stuck in three or four years ago. It has the loveliest of pale purple flowers, but it doesn't like to stay put.

It is manageable if you keep an eye on it, but turn your back and it's off and running. I finally managed to remove the last of the renegades that it produced this spring, some from the front yard where I don't recall planting it, but then just last week, someone gave me a another variety called Cherry Bells and I couldn't resist finding a spot for it. I've a feeling those cherry bells are soon going to be ringing loudly, just for me.

But it's the Rheum palmatum that's now the problem. If there was a tabloid garden magazine, I'd be on the front cover. I brought it home over a year ago, something I picked off the rack in one of my many "I'll take one of those, too, moments". I'll find room for it, I no doubt said to myself. How could I have known? — it came in a small pot, for goodness sake.

After I planted it, I forgot about it. I stuck it in the bed beside the patio between a pair of clematis that grow against the fence there. I really don't know why, except I probably thought the bed could use a little more foliage. After planting, it barely did more than sprout a couple of leaves before vanishing behind taller plants for the rest of summer. In fall, I had my doubts that it would survive the winter, but it did, with excessive enthusiasm.

Needless to say, I now have foliage exactly as described in my Reader's Digest A- Z Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants which, had I been thinking, I would have read first before planting the thing, or better still, before buying it: "Rheum palmatum (Chinese rhubarb): Rhizomatous perennial with a massive rootstock and thick leaf stalks that bear broadly ovate to rounded, three to nine-lobed, coarsely toothed, dark green leaves to 90cm (36ins)."

I have foliage all right, enough to hide two clematis, multiple daylilies, a tree peony, and assorted groundcovers. Unfortunately, I don't know what the variety of Rheum palmatum is that is currently intent on being all that it can be. If it's 'Bowles Crimson', I'm in big trouble.

In good conditions, most Rheum reach only a couple of meters, but Bowles tops out at almost five. Mine is already way over my head. It will have to be moved. I do have a spot down the yard that's far more appropriate, but after reading the bit about massive rootstock, I'm a little concerned as I'm well aware of what the roots on regular rhubarb are like. Oh, and by the way, Rheum is not edible; in fact, it's toxic, packed with countless chemical compounds; so suggestions for opening a pie stall at the local market are not acceptable. What was I thinking of? Beats me. 

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Garden of the Future

Tired of mowing the lawn or watering the flowers . . . had enough of watching impatiens succumb to frost? Help, whether you want it or not, is on its way by means of genetically modified plants. There is strong resistance worldwide to genetically modified food crops, but if science has its way, GM plants may well gain acceptance by slipping into the garden via the back gate where they'll be welcomed by many gardeners. Could you handle a lawn that rarely needs mowing? How about plants that survive our winter and flowers that never need watering? They'll all be an easy sell at the garden centre.

Gardeners have been striving for perfect plants for years, achieving their goals by breeding and hybridizing. Creating new varieties is old hat, but gene manipulation will be a giant leap into a world where rules and expectations have vanished. I suppose in one sense it will encourage more homeowners to take up gardening when all the hard work and chores have been removed, but will it still be gardening?

The benefits will be touted — pollen free plants that will ease life for hay fever sufferers, plants that bloom endlessly and never need deadheading, and even designer shrubs in any shade to match the siding on the house. Will we regret not fretting over black spot or panicking over cinch bugs? I doubt it. But there's no reason to believe it will end there.

Who will say no when predatory plants are on offer that chow down on mosquitoes, even hostas that digest slugs for a change? I don't imagine there's anyone who will refuse a plant that when chewed on renders rabbits sterile. This all may sound wonderful, or frightening, but where will the challenge be in gardening? What will be the point? There can hardly be any sense of accomplishment in nurturing plants to fruition when all the potential flaws and possible failures have been genetically removed. What will be the difference between a GM plant and an artificial one?

Synthetic grass as a substitute for the staining kind that needs cutting is already being actively marketed for the backyard. Why not simply turn the whole place into a Disney cartoon with plastic plants that sing to us as they sway in the breeze? Gardeners, this could be your nightmare, but too many won't care. What's more, there'll be nothing for me to write about. I'll be out of a job, so please, act now! Protest! Call your MP. Keep GM plants out of the field and out of the garden.


Surely you really don't need a rose without thorns that repels aphids, never gets black spot, and is customized to grow to the height of your very own nose so that you won't have to bend to sniff the fragrance. What's that — where can you buy one? Look around, I'm afraid the future is rushing to keep up.