Corona Garden Diary 3/30/20: No, April isn’t Canceled

In the wake of Virginia governor Northam’s stay-at-home order today, I saw a headline that said “April Canceled.”

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Clusiana tulips ‘Cynthia’.  They close up when the sunlight starts to fade.  When they are open they are yellow.  When they are closed they are pink.  I like these little pink spears.

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Blue & Gold.  My old high school colors.

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Wood poppy.  (Stylophorum diphyllum) Another “good spreader”

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Redbud ready to pop

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Epimediums are a terrific groundcover.  Here they are growing right at the base of a black walnut.  They spread slow but steady.

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Solomon’s Seal.  A steady spreader.  I started with 4 plants 3 years ago.

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New foliage on Oakleaf hydrangea with last fall’s burgundy foliage hangin’ on.

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April canceled?  The gardens have not gotten the message.

Corona Garden Diary 3/25/20: Good Spreader/Bad Spreader

It all started out innocently: a tiny plant that hitchhiked its way into my yard in the pot of a coralberry bush that I purchased from a nursery a few years ago.  I planted the coralberry in the fall, and in the spring I was delighted to find a robust new perennial with starry yellow blooms growing beneath it.

By the end of that first summer, there was a healthy patch.  Believing I had found a perennial groundcover that actually thrived in my difficult backyard, I enthusiastically transplanted patches of this plant in about five different places.  And that is where the story takes a disturbing turn.

The following spring (May 2018), the original location looked like this (it’s the groundcover to the right of the path):

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The epicenter 

I was soon to learn the name of this intruder: Packera aurea, also known as Wuhan Golden Groundsel.  Ha.  Actually, this interloper happens to be a North American native, and I have seen it touted on quite a few blogs and articles as a great native groundcover. I suppose it could be, but based on my experience I would put a giant asterisk next to this recommendation.  If you plant it, plant it in only one place and then watch it!  I have spent the last couple of years trying to flatten the curve on the spread of this plant, which for me has been rampant and exponential.

DSC_2342 It is a pretty plant in some situations, but it also has the potential to look rather weedy, as above (though the struggling Skip Laurel doesn’t help this tableau).  In a woodland garden, a few patches of it would be delightful, but in my semi-shady-but-not-quite-woodland backyard, it has spread like a ______________, overtaking everything in its path.

Packera aurea is difficult to pull out of the ground as well.  It seems to have two kinds of roots: large, fleshy ones and fine, fibrous ones and both seem to reach deep into the soil.  The roots quickly entangle themselves into the roots of nearby plants.  Here it has grown underneath a sedum and sent up shoots clear through the formidable crown of a mature plant.  Note all the little baby Packera that I am desperately trying to keep at bay with assorted mitigation efforts.

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Packera aurea spreads aggressively through its roots, but the flowers also produce tens of thousands of dandelion-like seeds that, in April or May, drift through the air and land in all sorts of fun places, like nestled between the rhizomes of iris:

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This is some fun weeding.

It also seems to be perfectly happy to become a lawn replacement:

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So yeah, if I had to do it all over again, I would have instituted a travel ban against this particular native.  Based on the positive reviews this plant has received from other sources, I gather that it’s not a scourge in every situation.  But this is a perfect illustration of how most gardening advice should be local, and how not all native plants are created equal.

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The original epicenter as it looks today.  Social distancing efforts between the Packera and other plants have shown promise.  It may be some time, however, before things return to normal.

Take, for example, Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells). This native spreads in the best possible way: slow, steady, and polite.

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Eleven or twelve years ago I bought three Virginia bluebell plants from the native plant nursery Nature By Design.  Since I bought the plants in August and Mertensia are dormant in the summer heat, it looked like I was buying three pots of dirt.  But what a great payoff the following February and March: lettucy foliage pushing up into the cold, followed by violet buds, then electric blue bells!

And while Virginia Bluebells do spread, they do so slowly.  Do they ask permission before spreading their roots into a new space?  Not quite, but almost.

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Site of first bluebell planting.  It has grown to an 8′ x 12′ patch.  Also note satellite plants popping up a few feet away.

Over the past ten years, I have noticed that new Mertensia plants will appear within a five foot radius of established plants.  I am not sure if this spread is down to underground roots or to seeds popping out into surrounding soil, but the spread is certainly not aggressive.

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As the bluebells fade in May, I usually dig up a few clumps and place them around the yard.  Placing them next to hostas is ideal because as they go dormant the hosta fills in the empty space.

Virginia Bluebells also seem less assertive because they go dormant in the summer.  They put on a spectacular show in the early spring, but then they retreat backstage and let other plants step up.

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Another transplanted clump.  This one will also slowly spread over the coming years.  

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Tete a tete daffodils with a transplanted clump of bluebells

Should you tire of seeing jolly blue blossoms during the gray skies of early spring (i.e., if you are a psycho) you could easily pull out unwanted plants and share them with a lucky friend.

Upshot: not all spreaders are the same.  Not all will conquer your entire garden in the blink of an eye.  Gardeners must never panic.  However, it pays to watch, learn, and intervene when you must.

 

Corona Garden Diary 3/22/20: Two Views on the Ornamental Cherry

Here in northern VA, the cherry blossoms are at their splendid best.  Down at the Tidal Basin, at least some tourists are showing up to view the iconic Yoshino cherries (check the Bloom Cam to monitor the social distancing).

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There are a couple of different ways to view the cherry trees:

a) that they are to be revered as symbols of ephemeral beauty, that they should be contemplated in the spirit of hanami to remind us that life is short and we should make the most of it (this view courtesy of the Japanese)

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b) that they are a nuisance and “messy as hell” (this view courtesy of my dad)

The topic of spring blooming cherries came up when I visited my dad this weekend.  Since we both have mature Yoshino cherry trees growing right next to our driveways, we bonded over the pros and cons of the tree.  While I tried to tout the merits of the pale pink blossoms as a wondrous harbinger of spring, Dad was more circumspect:

“The petals fall on the cars and stick like hell,” he said.  When I pointed out that the Japanese celebrate the beauty of the delicate blossoms scattered on the ground as the flowers fade, my dad had a different take: “It looks like an army of birds has shat on everything.”

I envision families in Japan gathered to contemplate the fleeting nature of life as they gaze upon the white-pink petals fluttering to the ground.  Meanwhile, my dad scrapes the petals up with his snow shovel and dumps them into a trash can.

Dad’s getting older though.  He’s nearly 84, moving slowly these days, and I realize that one day I will miss his cranky takes on cherry trees.

Hanami.  Life is fleeting.

Corona Diary 3/18/20: Seeds & Stuff

Yesterday, while the rest of the country was busy not celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, I was planting my peas.  Here they are, snug in their Earthbox until they begin germinating in a week or so:

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A few years ago, I read that St. Patrick’s day is a traditional day to start peas in zone 7, which is just the sort of random tradition I take a fancy to.  Since then, I have planted peas every St. Patrick’s day and also every August for a fall crop.  The variety I have been planting is called Super Sugar Snap and it has been absolutely fool-proof for me.  I don’t even cook them, I just eat them raw by the handful, often plucked right off the vine with a feeling of triumph at having produced my own food.  Even though I probably burn more calories planting and tending them than they offer back as fuel, still, it’s cool to eat your own veggies.

Here is a higher calorie vegetable I am experimenting with — potatoes:

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I bought a couple of these grow bags two years ago but haven’t tried them yet.  The seed potatoes go in the bottom, then as they grow you are supposed to keep adding soil.  There is a little velcro flap at the base of the bag, sort of like you would find on a union suit, where you can dig around for the potatoes when they are ripe.  It’s all very experimental.  Because I like to live on the edge, I chose a blue potato, called Adirondack Blue:

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I guess I will be updating you about these potatoes in about 80 days.

Here are my indoor seeds.  Raise your hand if you can spot the problem:

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Very good, you can put your hands down.  None of my research indicated what to do when the seedlings grow at vastly different rates.  I have to keep raising the grow light to accommodate the taller tomato seedlings (back left), which puts the light further away from the Joseph’s Coat (front left) and cinnamon basil (first row, right).  Plus the tomato seedlings (a variety called ‘Bumble Bee’) are shading the smaller seedlings out.  Meanwhile, only one of my Gomphrena seeds germinated (the three rows on the right are all supposed to be Gomphrena!)  I am afraid if that lone seedling looks around and realizes it is alone in the universe it may lose the will to live!  Please just one more germinate so he can have a friend.

All of the seeds germinated at about the same time, believe it or not.  I suppose I need to research the number of days it takes between germination and transplant time for each plant.  Too complex!  In second grade I aced the unit where we sprouted lima beans and drew pictures of how they progressed.  I should be nailing this!

That is all for now.  I had some tree pruning done today, too.  Big trees, so very expensive!  I took pictures of it, but in all honesty, they are not very interesting.  Imagine a man in a hard hat up in a tree with a chain saw….now imagine a pile of tree branches sitting in front of a wood chipper….there, now you have seen the pics of today’s tree trimming adventure!

Corona Garden Diary 3/17/20

I planted several handfuls of ‘Tete a Tete’ daffodils last fall and I am reaping the rewards now.  I will definitely plant more of these little guys  — perhaps hundreds more!  Plenty of space on that brown slope there, don’t you think?

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Unfortunately, the dwarf iris that I planted at the same time (Iris reticulata ‘Rhapsody’) — which was also supposed to bloom at the same time  — did not get the message and is already done blooming.  Here are the iris a couple weeks ago:

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So much for my blue and gold early spring extravaganza!  I can still enjoy them sequentially, I suppose, but still…I had been excited about the combo.  Moving on to one of my beloved Ackerman Camellias:

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This camellia is one of the ‘April’ series…I think it’s ‘April Remembered’ but (ironically) I can’t remember for sure.  The flowers are huge even though the plant is still young and lanky; the effect is sort of like when you see a Great Dane puppy but with gigantic paws.  So sweet.

Next, hellebore patch growing right under my black walnut.  I can’t remember this cultivar right now, but it is one of the Pine Knot farms ones.  I love the ruffly, dusty-pink blooms:

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The bluebells are just starting to bloom.  Nothing better.

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Little patch of daffs blooming in a far-off corner of my yard.  Planted by the previous owner.

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Lindera benzoin with its soft spray of pale yellow blooms (in stark comparison to the eye-popping gold of the forsythias).  Birds planted this one a few years ago.

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Daffodil with silhouette of honeybee:

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Camellia ‘Nuccio’s Bella Rossa’ planted in much too small a space:

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Clematis ‘Henryi’ working his way up the side of my porch:

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Classical statuary in the Orangerie:

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(Okay it’s a concrete doo-dad from an antique store on Rt. 50 and it’s sitting in a patch of daylilies, but still nice.)

Tarragon making lots of headway in the herb garden:

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Bumble bee resting on the ‘Sage’ sign.  They’re still a bit lethargic in the chilly spring air:

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Husband built some new beehives and brushed them with teak oil before setting them up:

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Bees coming and going, looking rather….well, busy, I guess.

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Like the college students down in Florida, there is very little social distancing occurring here, and little empathy for the weakest members of their community (they just shove their dead out of the hive!) Still, it is nice to see a functioning community at a time like this — full labor participation, lines of production open, etc.  Yeah, it’s a monarchy, but at least for now, the bee economy rolls on!

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Toxic Relationships

Very few can survive, let alone thrive, living in the vicinity of a toxic individual.  Many will succumb instantly, unable to co-exist even for a short time in a toxic environment.  Others make a go of it, only to perish slowly or merely limp along, never reaching their full potential living in the shadow of a toxic presence.

Those of us with black walnut trees need to find those plants who are co-dependent, who will not only put up with juglone (the toxin present in all parts of Juglans nigra) but who will thrive under its canopy, bringing the tree its slippers and laughing at its offensive jokes.

I got an email from Simeon in Ithaca, NY, who gardens under black walnuts and inquired about planting a Kousa dogwood beneath his trees.  Would C. kousa pack its bags after encountering a black walnut’s toxic personality or would it accept its adverse circumstances and become self-actualized anyway?

I wasn’t sure, but I did ask Simeon to send me a picture of the perennial border that he has planted under his walnut trees, and he kindly obliged:

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As you can see, all sorts of hostas and ferns look completely at ease in the presence of juglone.

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Simeon also highly recommends ‘Sunburst’ St John’s Wort (Hypericum frondosum ‘Sunburst’) as a plant that flourishes alongside black walnuts.  Thank you Simeon!

I find it both comforting and inspirational to find other souls who are committed to finding plants who tolerate the presence of black walnuts — messy, pernicious, beautiful, bountiful black walnuts. What? You’re too good for to live with one?  Oh, you don’t want to live with someone who drops bombs on your head and poisons your environment?  Get outta here, snowflake!

July 7, 2018

A glorious, sunny, breezy day today and I spent it toiling around the perimeters of my property at war with ivy and Virginia creeper.

Each year I make a little more progress on the unkempt regions of my backyard, and this summer I am doubling down on the vines that grow along the fences.  When I am feeling defeated by these vines, I convince myself it’s okay to let them crawl all over the stockade and chain link and slither under my shrubs.  It’s a wild garden, I say to myself.  These vines are just “rambling” and “scampering” among the other plantings and they “soften” the look of my ugly fencing. It’s a William Robinson look.

Ha-ha. Except that’s mostly delusional because in truth the ivy twines between the fence boards, grows, and wedges the boards apart.  The little sticky pads on the Virginia creeper cling to the sides of my cute little shed, ready to tear off the yellow paint when I try to remove it.  The wild grape sends out its wiry tendrils, like antennas on some alien life form, searching for a delicate little garden plant — like my thalictrum! — to smother to death.

There is something very satisfying about grasping a vine that runs along the ground and pulling on it with just right amount of force so that the roots come up without the vine breaking.  I always try to see how many feet of vine I can get up just by pulling, before the vine breaks or gets caught on something and I have to come in with my clippers.  Sometimes I can get like eight or ten feet of vine in one tug.  Oh, yeahhhhh….

I have a serious problem with Virginia creeper and wild grape along my chain link fence. After years of ignoring them, they’ve developed massive, inch-thick roots that run right underneath the metal of the fence.  My little forked weeder is useless in this situation — like putting out a fire with a Waterpik — so I haul out my shovel and try to wedge the tip of it under the root.  Try to pry it up, though, and the damn metal fence gets in the way.  Blast!  Except every once in a while I get the shovel under there at a sweet angle and when I push down on the shovel handle pop! a giant section of vine comes up.  Pull hard on it and — if I’m lucky — pop, pop, pop! — I’ll get a couple of feet of that mother extricated from the soil.

I pulled on so many vines today that even now, sitting like a lump in this chair, I see and feel myself pulling vines. I feel my fingers closing over a piece of ivy and pulling.  Chunks of cool, dry dirt fly onto my bare arms as I rip it out.  I cram the piece into my yard waste can and crouch down to search for more. Did I get it all?  No, there’s some more encircling the trunk of that euonymus.  Crouch, grab, pull, repeat. Pretty sure I will dream about pulling vines tonight. In my dream, the vines will be endless, the world will smell of dirt, and William Robinson will be laughing at me, laughing so hard.