Black Walnut Society Officially Unveiled

Do you garden under a Black Walnut tree?  Have you searched the internet seeking lists of species that grow under Black Walnuts only to discover that the lists are sometimes contradictory, or that (even worse) they are waaaaay too short to satisfy your jonesing for plants?

Is your Black Walnut tree interfering with your gardening pleasure, making you irritable, or adversely affecting your overall life enjoyment quotient?

Have you cut down a Black Walnut tree or had thoughts of cutting one down?

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Garden Designer’s Roundtable: By the Sweat of Your Brow Will You Weed Your Bed.

My husband and I moved into our house in Burke, VA (Zone 7a) early in 2003 and immediately got to work on “letting the yard go” for about, oh, 4 years or so.  I’m sure the neighborhood was horrified by our neglect, as I know you will be when you see the “before” pictures.  [Read more…]

ISO Garden Exorcist

Spirits dwell in my garden soil, and they're not beneficial nematodes.

I’m pretty sure my soil is haunted.

In trying to figure out why all the plants in this certain bed in my backyard keep dying slow, excruciating deaths, I have ruled out high pH, micronutrient deficiencies, marine clay, grubs, acid rain, and communist infiltrators.

I figure the only possible explanation for the gradual decline/death of five cherrylaurels, two Itea, three ostrich ferns and a river birch has to lie somewhere in the supernatural realm. 

I took Hort 101 at the local community college, which covered common pests and diseases, but rather egregiously omitted information about planting over indian burial grounds and civil war battlefields, purging your plants of evil spirits, and dealing with neighbors who may be practicing horticultural voodoo or botanical black arts in retaliation for aiming your downspout at their flowerbeds.

In mulling over which of these dark forces may be at work in this garden bed, it occurs to me there is a niche in the marketplace for a more supernatural skill-set.  Garden Coaches have been around for awhile now, but I think a reputable Garden Coach/Exorcist or Garden Sorcerer could get a fair bit of business. 

I definitely need one.

Weedscaping With Mary

Take a look at my designer “cottage lawn,” one of the hottest garden trends of 2012. 

Don’t be jealous.  It’s taken me years to achieve this look.  Note the highly desirable color combination of yellow (dandelions) and sky blue (Creeping Charlie). 

It's not easy to achieve this loose, relaxed, neglected look. But looks can be deceiving. These dandelions are actually in the exact formation of the Horsehead Nebula.

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Garden Blogger’s Bloom Day: Forsythiosis

Mary's forsythia hedge

Now is as good a time as any to talk about forsythia. 

If you live in zone 7, it’s just popped out in all its tacky gold glory, and is either splaying all over the place in a spectacular tangle or — more likely — it was sheared into a giant egg shape in the fall by some doofus (possibly your spouse) so now it can’t fully express its brazen forsythiosity. 

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Slangin’ Delightful Plants

Yesterday afternoon I placed my order with Plant Delights, the nursery down in NC that publishes the best, and most addictive, catalog in all of horticulture. 

My intention was  to buy ONLY a Danae racemosa, with which I was unfamiliar until a local designer introduced me to it a few years ago.  Also called Poet’s Laurel, this small evergreen shrub is said to be “laden with marble-sized reddish-orange berries in fall” according to Tony Avent, owner of Plant Delights, author of its catalog, and “dealer” of delightful plants. 

You have to watch out for Tony.  He might lure you into buying a plant merely through his wry, irreverent, and often provocative descriptions.  For example, Tony introduces Poet’s Laurel with this line: “From Iran and other “axis of evil” countries comes one of our favorite garden plants.”  He closes the blurb with: “Danae was the daughter of King Acrisius of Argos…the dude who became a rock gardener when he was shown Medusa’s head.”

Damn you, Tony.  With your puns AND allusions to Greek mythology how can I NOT buy this plant???

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The Totally Brain-Wasted Botanist?

When I was 13 and a Junior Naturalist at the local nature center (job description: clean the aquarium, wander around) I got really good at leaf identification with the help of this trusty li’l book:

 Do you remember these?  I had a whole collection of these Golden Guides.  Pocket-sized, colorful, and glossy — they were so cute!  I think I also had The Golden Guide to Butterflies and Moths, The Golden Guide to Rocks and Minerals, and The Golden Guide to Pond Life.  But I was definitely missing this volume:


I never knew this one existed, until I stumbled upon it on Amazon.  From the image, it looks like a used library reference book, which is kind of ironic since it’s supposed to be a “field” guide after all.  How will the young folk be able to accurately identify which fungi will wizz them into the stratosphere if they can’t check out the guidebook????

Anyway, even if you’re not into serving up cannabis cannoli or going out to graze on your opium poppies, this group of plants is pretty fascinating.  I think Amy Stewart, one of the bloggers at Garden Rant, should write a book about hallucinogenic plants.  What with her current project, The Drunken Botanist (subtitle: Celebrating Horticulture’s Contribution to Gettin’ Wasted) it sounds right up her alley!  Whaddaya say, Amy?

Lessons From the Winter Garden (of My Discontent)

A winter vignette from Mary's garden! Featuring: mud, dead leaves, old bags of planting mix, cheap hoses, rusty stakes, and disillusioned pets.

Ahhhhh yes, the garden in winter.  So serene.  So magical.  So frosty and twinkly!

That is, if you live in the pages of one of those “Winter Gardening” books or articles, which always include the following photos:

1. a cardinal sitting on a snow covered holly branch
2. a close-up shot of a berry cluster, possibly glazed with ice
3. some evergreen boughs adorned with fairy lights, once again with a fine dusting of snow

Okay, fine.  I know that winter gardens can be beautiful, but let’s be real.  This thing where there’s a half inch of fluffy snow highlighting the fine tracery of tree branches and creating a Currier and Ives wonderland is waaaaaay overrepresented in the gardening literature.  How often does it snow like that?  Where I live in Virginia, I can count on such a scene for maybe six to ten hours each winter.  Here’s a shot of a lovely, light snowfall from earlier this winter:

I think it made my backyard look rather nice.  On the other hand, it made the landscaping down at the local Shell station look like a friggin’ landscape design masterpiece, so I don’t really think it’s fair to critique winter landscaping under these conditions.  Plus, by 3pm it was all melted and I was left with my more typical winter landscape in shades of brown, tan, greenish-brown, tannish-brown, brownish-olive-green, doo-doo brown, and “mud” brown.  And all of it squishy.

Unless you are gardening in Camelot — where it snows an inch a day, melts overnight, and then snows again in the morning — your garden will not be graced with a fine dusting of fresh snow all that often.  So what to do?  How to design for winter?

Well, I’ve been mulling this over, and today I wandered around my backyard asking myself that very question.  Here are a few thoughts I had during my stroll…things I’m going to keep in mind for the future:

#1 Consider the winter color of evergreens.  Because there’s a good chance it won’t be green.  Many evergreens, like these ‘Macrantha’ azaleas in the photo below, turn a sort of muted plum color in the winter.  This is a characteristic that could be used to your advantage if you can find other plants to contrast or complement this plum color (bergenia?carex? any other ideas?)  In my planting, though, they fade right into the brown of the dirt around them and the timber wall behind them.  So the whole advantage of being evergreen is sort of lost.

Another example: the variegation on this dwarf boxwood in the photo below changes from yellow to rusty-orange in winter.  How cool is that?  I am dying to pair something with this shrub to make a winter combo extraordinaire…I just haven’t figured out what yet.  Would you hate me if I planted orange pansies around it?

#2 Colorful Stems = Best Horticultural Invention Ever  Last spring I planted three Yellowtwig Dogwoods (cultivar “Green and Gold”) and I could not be more fond of them.  If I’m feeling morose, I make a point of looking out my kitchen window at them and they cheer me right up.  Now…as much as I love colorful stems, I don’t know if I would plant a shrub if that were its ONLY worthwhile attribute.  But this cultivar looks cute in summer, too…not too big and unkempt like other shrub dogwoods, nifty green and white variegated foliage…yup, it’s definitely pulling its weight in the garden.

#3 Berries Rule!  If they are not too eagerly consumed or used as projectiles!  As you can see in the photo above, I’ve got a few Winterberry Hollies  in this garden, and they are looking pretty sad and sparse at this point.  Earlier in fall, they were loaded with berries and totally looking stellar next to a glorious clump of  tawny Miscanthus.  But the birds really do seem to like these berries, which is reason enough to plant them.  Plus, certain five year olds can’t seem to keep their little fingers from plucking them off and either a) hurling them at imaginary foes, accompanied by exploding noises or b) stomping them into a pulp on the wooden deck.  But I guess this is all part of the winter garden experience.

#4 Plant perennials that die with dignity.  My favorite pictures of winter gardens are not the ones with the dustings of snow, but rather the ones that feature large masses of perennials and grasses that remain standing through the cold months in all their brittle, straw-and-russet-colored glory.  What’s missing from my winter garden is the texture, color, and sheer mass that exists in such plantings.  I’ve just got too much empty space. 

The legendary Piet Oudolf has left me, and probably millions of other winter gardeners, striving for this ideal. It looks so easy but it is truly the work of a genius. Photo credit: Piet Oudolf.

Some gardeners think that planting evergreens can solve this dilemma; however, too many evergreens make a landscape look monotonous, so the trick is to figure out which herbaceous perennials retain strong stems and/or cool seedheads, and plant more of those.  Many ornamental grasses fit the bill.  Sedums, yeah.  I don’t cut those back.  In the spirit of Piet Oudolf and Oehme/van Sweden, I really want to keep all of my perennials standing through winter, but my garden phlox and my turtlehead?  Oh man, they just have to go.  I can’t bear to let their limp, eviscerated corpses lay strewn about my garden.  Leaving too many gaps, though, becomes a problem.  Does Piet Oudolf leave gaps?  I think not.

#5 Have fun with winter vignettes.  I think it’s a great idea to have a few places in the garden in which plant combinations are created specifically for winter appeal.   When I worked at a garden center one year, I was driving one of those electric carts back to a lot where the surplus plants were stored.  It was late fall, and as I was speeding along, a couple of random plants caught my eye — a Nandina domestica and a red Camellia sasanqua.  The pairing of the red berries and deep red flowers, of lacy and glossy foliage together, was stunning. I slammed on my brakes and just stared at this marvelous combo for several minutes.   It was lush and bold and wintry all at the same time…and no snow necessary!

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