Thursday, August 21, 2014

Vertical Amazement

Big Bluestem "Vitman"
Even the smallest gardens can use a little vertical amazement.  Vertical in the form of ornamental grass.

Perennial ornamental grass in Zone 5 (where we live in Illinois) hasn’t had too many new varieties because many can’t take our freezing ground temperatures.  Most of the hardy ones are native to this area.

I have several varieties and I love how they look and perform:
Blue Festuca "Elijah Blue"
Small clumps:
Blue Festuca “Elijah Blue” – 9x10 inches in a soft blue clump.
Japanese Blood Grass “Red Baron” – 18 inches green with deep red stripes and tips.
Tiger Grass – 18 inches – likes to spread.
Blue Dune Grass

Medium clumps:
Little Bluestem “Blaze” – 3 ft. and turns red in the fall.
Little Bluestem “The Blues” – 3 ft. with blue leaves.
Flame Grass “Purpurascens” – 3 ft. with red/orange fall color.
Maiden Grass “Huron Sunrise” – 4 ft. with red seed heads in fall.

Large clumps:
Big Bluestem “Vitman” – 8 ft or more with large seed heads in the fall.
Zebra Grass “Strietus” – 8 ft. – stripes
Japanese Blood Grass "Red Baron"

Crazy Invasive:
Blue Dune Grass – 3 ft. light blue straps – underground runners.  Beautiful and impossible to keep in bounds.  I don’t recommend planting.
Bamboo – Technically not a grass but some people use as grass.  Do not plant or you will regret it to the point of it growing into your house, into your bedroom and overtaking the mattress and eventually covering your spouse who you won’t be able to find and people will suspect foul play.  I’m telling you this because I care.
Zebra Grass

May or may not survive the winter:
 Japanese forest grass “Aureola” – 2 ft. – lime and green strip leaves
Northern Sea Oats – 3 ft. – some consider invasive.
Corkscrew Rush “Spiralis” – 2 ft.  Green leaves that twist.
Giant Reed Grass – 12 ft. – looks like a corn stalk.  Can be invasive under perfect conditions.

The choices are expanding as annual ornamental grass has been embraced for potting.  The sizes, colors, patterns and fall seed heads are just some of the fun attributes.  There are tiny examples for fairy gardens and tall upright for limited space.   Since some are up to 3 ft. tall and wide, they can be interplanted with your perennials. 

Maiden Grass "Huron Sunrise"
Need a backdrop for a beautiful flowering perennial?  Have a bare spot?  Want to draw the eye along a certain path?  Need privacy?  Annual grasses can fill the order.  They come in a variety of prices starting at about $10.  I’ve had pretty good luck over wintering annual grass in my basement. 

Annual grasses can be divided easily.  Perennial grasses take some pretty serious muscle or a backhoe to divide some of the large clumps.  If you don’t want the perennial grass to spread, make sure you either don’t buy any that even hints at “invasive” or plant in pots and treat as an annual.

Annual dwarf "King Tut" grass

Cut the seed head off in the fall for bouquets or leave for bird feed.  Leaving the grasses stand over winter insures a safe and warmer hiding place for several varieties of birds. 

Perennial or annual grass is a great thing to share because it invigorates the clump to have part of the roots dug out.  And in the “yes, it was an odd winter and I’m still finding crazy things” category:  I had three clumps of native “Big Bluestem Vitman”.  One clump almost totally died, one is only about four foot tall and the third doubled in diameter and is over eighteen foot tall.  Now that’s vertical amazement!   
Big Bluestem rockin' fall.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Bee in Your Bonnet

This little guy has so much pollen on his back legs,
he looks like he has gold chaps.

People are finally sitting up and taking notice of the decline in bees and what affects it has upon produce.  I sometimes think it has been ignored because the ramifications are so enormous and dire it’s hard to get your thoughts around them.  How can one little honeybee and its wild bee cousins be responsible for the majority of our food supply?

Little black bee loving Bachelor Buttons
We can play the blame game but that won’t save one bee or keep one hive alive unless everyone takes an interest in saving these little fuzz balls.  What can the aver homeowner do?

Pollen gathering from a zinnia.
Supping the sticky sweet off the petals of an Oriental Lily.
Do not use chemical pesticides unless you are threatened with total crop failure.  A crop needed to sustain your family or as your income.  Home gardeners have the advantage of being able to care for their plot of land with natural methods or pesticides applied in a manner, time of day or on a specific area that will least come in contact with bees.

Don’t apply pesticides to the flowers of plants – only the areas where the insects are destroying.

Pick off insects that are damaging your plants.  Usually early morning before they warm up is the best time.  Drop them in a bucket or dishwashing soapy water or into a zip-lock baggie.

More pollen gathering from a daylily
Study insecticide labels and understand what will be killed before you spread it willy nilly over beneficial insects.  Spraying everything in your yard with insecticide is the true meaning of “overkill.”

Tolerate some damage.

Learn what plants naturally deter insects and plant them with your vegetables.

Buy plants bred to resist insects and disease.

Try natural insecticides or protection first.

Keep your beds clean of debris since it can be a great place for damaging insects to overwinter.

Bees need a water source.
If you would like a “live demo”, plant squash, pumpkins or gourds and see how the bloom last one day and if a bee has not pollinated it during that short bloom time, it will not produce a vegetable.  One flower, open just one day and must have at least one bee to have one vegetable.  Notice the number of blooms that don’t get pollinated.

Keep some areas of your yard mulch free.  Some bees dig nests in the soil.

Teach your children to respect bees.  Most will never sting you if you let them go about their work of gathering pollen, building their nests and flying their specific paths.

Ask your local bee keepers to give a talk to your club or school.  Support them by buying their locally gathered honey.  It really is the elixir of the gods!

Use town plots, abandoned lots and roadsides to grow bee friendly sustainable crops.

Bumble bees are pollenizers, too.
If you have some extra space or even if you have extra acres, plant alfalfa, clover or other plants appealing to both bees and livestock.  Any farm person of my era remembers pastures of both alfalfa and clover because we all had animals that grazed all summer.  We rotated the animals into fields to let them graze it down so far and moved them on to another field in time to let it come back.  With the decline in animal breeding, those pastures have all but gone away.

Native plant Liatris is a bee magnet
In your back yard gardens and flowerbeds, plant flowers bees love.  Choose a variety of flowers that bloom from early spring to frost.  Not just ornamental flowers, but, flowering bushes and trees.  Lean towards native plants because they thrive in this environment and they’ve been benefiting bees for centuries.

Study which plants are needed for what functions in a bee’s life; some may need specific plants for nesting as well as for pollen gathering.

Heritage Farms bee hives - photo from HF.

The USDA has a program for dairy farmers and ranchers in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas to fund a $3 million project to reseed pastures with alfalfa, clover and other specified plants.  The bill will include incentives for building fences, installing water tanks and efforts to help move their animals so the land doesn’t get worn down.  Whether you are a proponent of government farm subsidies or not, at least they have woke up to the need to strengthen our bee populations.

Commercial honeybees pollinate an estimated $25 billion worth of produce each year.  That doesn’t count the wild honeybees or it’s pollinating cousins.  If the population continues to die, it really could change the destiny of mankind.

If you would ljke more information, the University of Illinois, Purdue University and Michigan State University’s Department of Entomology will have additional facts and advice.  Most will have designs for increasing pollinator friendly yards.

No need to have a bee in your bonnet – just friendly yards or fields will do perfectly.

By clicking on the first picture, it will allow you to have larger views in a form to page through them.  Bees really are worth a closeup shot.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Thinking Annuals

I think all gardeners have a favorite annual; maybe several favorites.  Some of the reasons:

There are those that have the garden discipline to only use annuals that make perfect pots, borders and arrangements.

A beautiful frilly annual poppy.
For those with lots of room, having a “cutting garden” of annuals planted in rows like vegetables gives a summer’s worth of bouquets.

Combining certain annual flowers with vegetables may help repel insects.

Adding bright annuals to a perennial bed keeps it flowering all summer.

Then, there are those of us who plant flowers that bring back good memories.  I like the old fashioned annuals I saw in my grandma’s gardens.  Planted from seed, they are inexpensive and provide a riot of colors. 

Annuals from seed are easy and probably the reason kids are allowed to help plant them.  Some of my favorites to grow from seed:

Every zinnia I've ever had is my favorite.
Zinnia is a hardy plant with almost every color except blue.  Short, tall, big, little, solid or variegated colors and different petal shapes.  Include white and green for serene and elegant.  The riot of colors are reds, gold, orange and all shades in between.

A few Cosmos in a bud vase is especially sweet.

Cosmos look dainty and are tough as nails.  The soft fern-like leaves fill in around other plants and the beautiful flat flowers keep coming all season.  Shades of pink, white and gold are the most popular.

Bachelor Buttons fronting an old stump
full of petunias.
Bachelor Button is another deceptively tough plant and perfect for those needing blue in the gardens.  It also comes in shades of pink and white.  They may self seed. 

These bright Four-O'Clocks add zing to my veggie garden.
Four-o’clock is a thick bushy plant in bright pinks, oranges, yellow, red and white.   As their name indicates, they provide a visual statement in the evening and on cloudy days.

Marigolds are like a scoop of sunshine.

Marigolds are so tough some folks consider them too common and overlook the benefits of being drought tolerant.  It isn’t bashful about standing it’s ground against weeds and is virtually disease and insect resistant.  Many folks believe they help keep insects off garden vegetables; at any rate it brightens up a garden, bed, or pot.   There are many new hybrids in shades of gold, maroon, white and yellow.  Tall, short, small or large flowered.

Cleomes are a good insect magnet.

Cleome is a tall feathery plant that keeps on giving since the flowers keep blooming on the top.  White, pink and wine colors.  Gather the seeds before they drop if you don’t want zillions of plants next spring.  They do pull easily.  I generally let some drop and throw seeds over beds hoping for a mix in with perennials.

All of these may be seeded in rows, used in pots, put in selected areas or scattered to form a dense bed.  With some searching, you can find plant sets  at nurseries.  The above seeds can be mixed to form a combo of size and color perfect for a spectacular attraction or to hide something. 

One of about two-hundred zillion colors of Nasturtiums
The annuals above (and most others) need full sun, moisture when getting established and then they are happy with a typical Illinois summer.  Keeping weeds pulled insures they have all the moisture, sun and nutrients available.  

Once they’ve seeded or you’ve harvested the seeds, pull annuals and compost.  Annuals are better not left in the ground over winter because they can harbor diseases and insects plus most are no longer attractive.

To harvest the seeds, pick when the flower is dry and lay on newspaper for a few days just to make sure the seeds are dry.  Then put in a paper envelop, label and store in a dry spot where it won’t freeze. 

The old fashioned fragrant Nicotiana
Enjoy a riot of annuals throughout summer and bring a little old fashioned love back into your gardens.

(I know I didn't include some of our favorites, but I had to stop at some point.  I agree there are so many to choose from and I didn't even get into annual vines.)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Going for the Gold

Daylilies have their own personalities or genetic traits.  They're bred or hybridized for specific things that are important to the person hybridizing.  OK, that all sounds pretty simple but it's not.

Most hybridizers have thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of plants they are cross pollinating to get something special and new.  A huge percentage of these plants are thrown away and never make it to registration.  And then there's a plant that has what might be termed:  It has it all.

I have a bed of daylilies with their registered names pertaining to family members.  It's fun and every time I work with that lily, I think of that person.  I bought a daylily "Mary Todd" for my sister-in-law, Mary Gibson.  It was from Oakes Daylilies for $6.  OK, we now have two great things about the lily, it's has the right name and it's cheap.  Be still my beating heart.

"Mary Todd" had a simple description:  "Six inch bright yellow blooms with ruffles and frills.  22 inch scapes.  Blooms mid to late season.  Semi-evergreen.   Stout Silver Medal honors."  It sounded nice but the daylily world is full of bright yellow blooms and my expectations were for a nice lily but nothing to write an article about.

"Mary Todd" was hybridized by Fay in 1967 so it wasn't even one of the new crazy varieties with loads of special things to get our attention.  It was big and yellow.  My plant is five years old and this is what has happened:

It consistently has loads - I mean LOADS - of perfectly shaped bright yellow gold lilies that always open early, stay open late and look perfect every lily.  Some lilies are divas on how they produce their flowers.  Some must have perfect weather, conditions, years and prayers.  "Mary Todd" is not a diva; she is in for the long haul.

An example of the many buds.
In five years, the plant has expanded and is always healthy.  The buds don't drop and it sends up numerous scapes.  At the top of each scape, the plant produces up to fifteen flowers.  This means a long period of flowers blooming and lighting up the bed.

The honor of being awarded the "Stout Silver Metal" means it was the "Best of Breed" for a given year and is the American Hemerocallis' highest honor.  "Mary Todd" deserves this honor.

This plant is excellent for lighting up a garden spot.  "Mary Todd" is pretty much care free except it may not bloom the year it's planted.  Any daylily I buy in the fall is planted in a shady bed just to get it in someplace before winter.  Then in the spring I dig and put it where I want - when I can see the spacing better as plants are coming up.  I accidentally left a bit of "Mary Todd" in the shade area when I moved her to the family bed.  She is now blooming her bright little show in spite of the shade and has even expanded.

Enjoy the photos - she is one of those daylilies that begs for a picture every day while in bloom.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Forget Me Nots

One of our group's rural gardens
I'd been around garden clubs in the past and never much cared for the hours spent sitting at tables with rules and not much gardening.  A friend and I were talking about that very thing while we were at a garden class and I decided to see if there were other gardeners who wanted to do garden things but not "meet" "vote" "have rules" and sit inside.  And there were!

Talking plants in an urban garden.
At first we loosely called ourselves "garden ladies" but that quickly changed to the "Forget Me Nots" when we spent the first time together talking about plants and having trouble remembering all the names.  Gardening and sense of humor seem to work well together.

Visiting a nursery for spring plants
Today, here's how we do this little group:  Each month one of us heads up what we do.  Aside from that, it's a loose plan.  Being able to roll with the weather and busy schedules is important.  To this end, if you can make it then good, if not we'll see you when you can.  If it rains, we'll either sit and talk gardening or cancel and move on to another time.  If someone gets their weeds pulled, has taken their shower and sends out an e-mail saying "have wine on the porch tonight; come if you can." that's OK, too.  

A rep from Rooftop Sedums sharing their product
while we visited on the back porch of one member.
All of us knows someone in the group, most of us didn't know everyone in the beginning.  We invite friends who might like that particular month's plan and if they want to keep coming we add them to the list and if not they're still welcome any time and anyway.  

It's the only group I meet with that "how you dress" isn't important.  And most times we include walking shoes, umbrellas, hats, cameras and food.  Did I mention:  food.  Some do the cooking and other times we stop at a restaurant.  Seems DQ is not out of the question after a day of garden fun.

Some heavy metal pickin' for yard creations.
We're still just getting started and finding what works.  We've gone to classes, had a formal presentation, gone metal pickin', visited individual gardens and commercial nurseries.  We're getting creative as we think of winter months and longer road trips.  

We car pool, laugh and have considered buses.  We share plants and yesterday some pulled garlic.  A lot of time is spent discussing what works for us and what hasn't.  We complain about weeds!  

My daylilies going crazy in the morning sun.
We are new gardeners and experienced gardeners.  We are hobbyists and Master Gardeners.  Some of us raise our own vegetables, others just flowers, some are into confers, annuals, perennials or just looking.  A few use their gardens (or have in the past) as a business.  Some are retired, others work outside the home and a few still have children at home.  We all have gardening passion.    

Wanted to share what we're doing in hopes you may also venture into gardening groups in a casual and fun way.    

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Dad's Best White

If you've often read my blog, you know I'm crazy about daylilies.  I've spared you recently by not writing non stop about them and today I'll bring them back.  Let me wax on . . .

"Dad's Best White" is a daylily you'll want to get if you want E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G.

I ordered DBW from Oakes Daylilies and it was a grand total of $9 - that's a bargain.  It was hybridized by Viette and registered in 1984.

The six inch flowers are a light yellow/cream with a small green eye.  They shimmer with a pearlized finish.  They're large enough to make an impact.  The petals are thin which makes them look like they are floating on the plant.

The scapes are considered self-branching - meaning they will have many opportunities for flowers.  They are about 28 inches tall so planting near the front of your garden bed gives them ample viewing.

They are considered a single flower (meaning no frilly petals in the middle), a diurnal and a diploid for those of you who are into the specifics.   They bloom mid-season.

What makes this an outstanding daylily is it is covered with flowers for approximately 45 days consistently every year no matter what the conditions.

The flowers aren't damaged by average summer sun, wind or rain.  They open cleanly and close tightly making it easy to deadhead.

I have no other daylily that is as consistent and as fully flowered as this variety.

The light cream color is a perfect foil for other bright daylilies or perennials.  It pulls the bed together through it's neutral color.  This doesn't mean it isn't a show stopper because it's mass of flowers draws attention.

The clump increases in size and it can easily be divided over and over.

Try some white daylilies in your garden.  So easy to care for and so beautiful.  I bought this one to add to my family garden in memory of my dad, Ward Shenk.  Since the chances of finding a daylily named "ward" was slim, I settled for Dad's Best White and I've not regretted it once in the five years it's been in my garden.

Side note:  The difference in color between pictures has to do with several things:  Time of day, cloudy or sunny, the year and where I'm standing in relationship to the light.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Gardening for Scrap Metal

Metal Praying Mantis made with scrap iron
We have a new loosely formed garden group.  The rules are there can't be any rules except courtesy to whoever is initiating some fun thing to do.  And since we're all gardeners, courtesy is a way of life so there ya' go.

One of the group who (with her husband) owns the local metal scrap yard, invited us to a morning of scavenging or pickin' for garden objects.  When someone is pickin',  "garden object" is in the eye of the beholder and twice the fun.

We came prepared with heavy work shoes, gloves and old clothes.  It was a cool breezy day so insects weren't an issue.  It was perfect pickin' weather.

Honestly, if we'd had a crane and cutting torch we would have been dangerous.  In leu of those, we culled what we could carry.  In addition, a beautiful patch of wild flowers (perhaps "Purple Prairie Clover") was dug in hopes of transplanting. And our friend also brought each of us a start of Sedum "Neon".

So what did we find:

A heavy cast iron thing with a hollow center and flared on both ends.  About 3 ft. tall, it will become a table with the addition of millstone on top.

Various license plates and street signs to become roofs for bird houses.

Several old cast iron pieces from planters, pickers and hoes.

Bottle flower from rebar.
Rebar (a gardener can't too much rebar.)

Lots of pieces of things from who knows what that will be repurposed into signs and object of art.

What we might have got:

Large pieces of sheet metal that had beautiful unusual holes stamped in them - they would make fabulous trellis.

Metal wheels still attached to old farm equipment (the torch reason) could be a fence or art.

And then bins and stuff and such.

Yes, a day at the scrap yard is a day of gardening fun!