Archive for July, 2011
Many flowers are known as excellent butterfly attractors, and I grow many of them. Native butterfly magnets are especially good, because they not only provide nectar for adults, but food for the caterpillar forms of these winged beauties.
Because I do provide many diverse native food plants, I don’t feel guilty for finding a place for the all-time winner of the Butterfly Magnet Award: Chinese Abelia (Abelia chinensis). This shrub begins blooming in my Piedmont NC garden in early June. Right now, despite record heat and searing drought, it is at peak bloom — completely covered in clusters of pinkish-white, sweetly fragrant flowers that weigh down the branch tips, causing the blooming shrub to have an almost weeping plant form.
The size of my mature specimen (eight feet high and six feet wide) is impressive enough in full bloom. But what makes it breathtaking are the zillions of pollinators that dance among the flowers from dawn to dusk. The flowers of this shrub reliably attract many more butterflies than the so-called Butterfly Bushes (Buddleia spp.). Often so many butterflies are fluttering among the flowers that the entire shrub appears to be moving as their colorful bodies float across it. Bees and sphinx moths love these flowers too. In fact, it’s hard for me to grab a morning sniff of perfume from a flower without disturbing some kind of pollinator that’s beaten me to the goods.
This is a big shrub, and its form is not what I would call elegant. But if you have a sunny spot big enough to accommodate it in your Piedmont garden — and you love butterflies — this is a plant you’ll want for your yard. Blooms appear on new growth, so you can prune it in early spring quite severely if you need to. I have hacked my poor shrub more than once, and its shape is consequently a tad odd, but the butterflies and other pollinators don’t seem to mind. This is what the entire shrub looks like as it guards the gate to my vegetable garden:
See how the flower clusters weigh down the branch tips? As the flowers finish, the sepals persist, turning from green to a rosy mauve color. The sepals persist in the clusters through late fall. From a distance, it almost looks as if it’s still blooming even in November. I like to clip a few of these sepal clusters to add to fall flower arrangements.
Flowers will continue to appear as long as the shrub is adding new growth. In wet summers (those long-ago times), my shrub stays covered in flowers until frost. During this dry, hot summer, growth has nearly stopped, and flower production appears to be waning. My shrub gets no supplemental water, and still it produces its sweet flower clusters.
As heat and drought are becoming the new norms for summer Piedmont weather, plants that can flourish under such conditions become increasingly important. Chinese Abelia has proven its merit in my yard. The butterflies and I agree: summer would be incomplete without this spectacular bloomer.
Chinese Pearl-Bloom Tree is fairly new to the US horticultural trade. So new, in fact, that I’ve only stumbled across this common name in the last year or so. This ornamental beauty from central China is otherwise known as Poliothyrsis sinensis.
I got my tree as a tiny rooted cutting from the JC Raulston Arboretum about 15 — maybe 18 — years ago. My tree is now 35 feet tall, and it’s covered in long-lasting white flower clusters (called panicles) that mature to a buttery yellow and persist on the tree for about a month — even during the record heat wave my part of the southeastern Piedmont is experiencing.
It began blooming by the time it reached seven or eight feet tall; it has bloomed every summer since then. In my yard, the flowers begin to show themselves in mid-June. Even now in a sweltering mid-July, the buttery flower clusters are lovely.
The leaves are exceptionally nice too. They are shiny and heart-shaped, and the leaf stems (petioles) remain a reddish-burgundy color throughout the growing season. The leaves emerge red-tinged, eventually turning their deep summer green. Fall color is a lovely light yellow. Here’s a close-up of the leaves and a flower cluster:
Eventually, the flowers morph into clusters of brown seed pods that persist on the tree through the winter and into the next growing season. Here’s a close-up of the leaves with a seed pod cluster from the previous growing season:
The tree has a lovely shape too. I think I’d call it pyramidal. In his Manual of Woody Landscape Plants (5th edition), Michael A. Dirr calls this tree a “fool-your-friends plant,” because it is not well known to most folks in the US yet. Dirr predicts this tree will remain shrub-like, topping out at about 25 feet. I must respectfully disagree. My tree growing in full sun on a hilltop is 35 feet tall and at least 25 feet wide, and it grows taller every year. In fact, it’s already a little too large for where I planted it.
But that’s OK. This tree — oblivious to drought, heat waves, and pests — can grow as large as it wants. I welcome its annual show of flower power during summer’s dog days — and its welcome shade and autumn color in other seasons.
Here’s a less-than-optimal parting shot of the entire tree, so that you can get a sense of its overall form.
If you’re looking for a unique ornamental tree that tolerates a wide range of growing conditions and blooms during the height of summer, consider this beauty. But give it plenty of room to grow. My experience indicates that this Asian species feels quite at home in the southeastern Piedmont of the United States.
OK, I’m overstating things a bit with the above photo. It’s not quite that grim here — yet. But searing record heat and worsening drought are making me feel it’s that bad.
A “cold” front came through last night, knocking our highs back down to normal, which for this time of year is around 90 degrees Fahrenheit. It certainly beats the 100+ degrees we were in. As has been the case all summer, the few lines of thunderstorms that accompanied the front entirely missed my yard and gardens. I swear, when I watch the green blips on the radar displays, the storms get almost to my house and then either evaporate spontaneously or deliberately steer themselves around me, re-forming after they’re past. Yes, I’m starting to take it personally.
Yesterday at dawn when I was watering my vegetables, the water stream emerging from the hose began coughing. I got chills despite the sweat rolling down my back. That cough was the shallow well we use for the garden telling me that it is just about done. There is no more water in the shallow perched water table that runs beneath the floodplain. The ashes and oaks have sucked it all up. There will be no more water in that well any time soon unless copious rains fall pronto. The rainfall outlook for the next week here: zero chance.
So now, just as my garden is reaching peak productivity, I will be forced to watch it die. The squashes were already declining, refusing to flower in the unrelenting heat. The cucumbers, despite additional water, refuse to fill out; the heat is just too much for them. The beans are still productive, but without water, that won’t last. The tomatoes are producing about a dozen ripe fruits a day. But without supplemental water, immature fruits will likely never fill out. Only the peppers may remain productive. I’ve noticed that once their fruits attain mature size, they don’t need as much water to finish ripening. In fact, less water seems to intensify their flavor.
I give most of the veggies two weeks tops before they all surrender to the new reality of summer Piedmont gardening: unrelenting heat and drought.
At the NC Botanical Garden earlier this week, I met a woman visiting from Alabama. Her summer gardening season ended several weeks ago, she told me. And that’s normal for that state, apparently. She bragged about all the tomatoes, pickles, beans, and jams she had canned for winter use. Now she’s done while Alabama sun bakes her earth into a desert until winter rains arrive.
I fear I must similarly adjust my expectations about gardening seasons in the Piedmont of North Carolina. No longer will year-round food production be possible, not with dwindling water tables and reservoirs, not with numbers of 90+ and 100+ degree days setting new records with every passing year. Flower gardens will change too. Summer rose lovers should probably learn to be satisfied with merely keeping their bushes alive from July through September.
And the lush summer greenness that clothes my great canopy trees, shading me and all the other creatures that live here, will continue to diminish. Larger and larger branches will fall as the trees self-prune in an attempt to conserve resources. Aging trees will fall to disease and insect attacks as their roots fail to find the water they need to sustain themselves.
In another decade or two, I pray the summer landscape doesn’t resemble the photo above that Wonder Spouse took a few winters ago. The black vultures had gathered to dine upon the carcass of a young deer that had become hung up in some tree roots growing into our creek. The creek had recently flooded (ah, how fondly I remember those bouts of raging brown water now), and we surmised that the deer had unwisely tried to cross the angry stream and drowned.
I hope I’m wrong, that my heat-addled brain is jumping to conclusions. But just in case, I’ll be starting vegetable seeds in my greenhouse even earlier next year, so that I can plant them out earlier. I may risk damage from a late frost. But I may succeed in gaining higher yields before searing sun and killing drought turn my green garden brown.
Happy Independence Day, my fellow citizens of these United States of America! Today in this country where weather permits, picnics, cookouts, and camping trips will abound. Fresh tomatoes from gardens will adorn sandwiches, new potatoes will be the basis of salads, watermelon seed-spitting contests will ensue, all ending in nighttime pyrotechnical displays. Good times and good eating for many!
Yesterday, my tomatoes declared their independence day — independence from their vines, that is — as all seven varieties I’m growing this year produced vine-ripened fruits ready for picking. The beans and squash varieties also added to yesterday’s haul. Here are the numbers:
- 7 Fortex pole beans (they’re just getting started)
- 21 Jade bush beans (also just starting to produce)
- 5 Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes
- 3 Early Goliath tomatoes (these were HUGE!)
- 1 Ferline tomato
- 2 Italian Goliath tomatoes (much more modest in size than their Early Goliath cousins)
- 4 Viva Italia paste tomatoes (the reliable productivity of this type never disappoints)
- 1 Big Beef tomato (not as big as the Early Goliaths)
- 4 Plato zucchinis
- 1 Raven zucchini
- 2 Summer Sunburst patty pan squashes
It’s official: summer produce season is in full swing. From here on out, I’ll be picking ripe fruit at increasing rates — if summer rains appear. If not, the shallow well I use to water the garden will go dry, and the productive summer gardening season will be cut brutally short.
The weather forecasters are offering us a slim 40% chance of scattered thunderstorms every day this week. I’m praying as many juicy clouds as possible park themselves over my yard and deliver inches of rain to my thirsty plants.
In fact, if Mother Nature wishes to rival the man-made fireworks displays scheduled for tonight with her own light show in the form of thunderstorms, I will not complain one bit — as long as the lightning and thunder are accompanied by inches of drenching, quenching rain.
Happy Fourth of July, y’all.
Only the squashes have been producing fruit every day, and even they are slower than usual — one fruit per plant every three days or so. I’m pretty sure it’s the crazy heat and the moderate, soon-to-be severe drought. I’ve read that tomatoes won’t set fruit when temperatures remain high; I suspect it’s true for all the veggies.
While the shallow well lasts, I’m watering every other day. I use a hose and direct the water precisely around the bases of the plants — less water wasted that way. It takes me a full hour to thoroughly water all the veggies, but it’s the only reason they’re still alive and producing at all.
I’ve been getting Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes every four or so days. Today, as you can see in the photo above, five were ready for harvest. They are moist and sweet — but not too sweet. That’s why we like this cherry tomato variety — they actually taste like tomatoes, not candy.
The larger tomato in back is an Italian Goliath. It’s the first of this variety that’s been ready. Another first-to-ripen variety is Viva Italia. They’re the three tomatoes on the right in the back. The other bigger tomato up front is another Ferline. The Ferlines have been most productive — in terms of producing ripe fruit — so far.
That’s a Raven zucchini and those seven beans are the first Jade bush snap beans to reach harvestable size. Judging by what I saw today, I think about twice that many may be ready tomorrow, especially since I thoroughly watered them.
After an early wave of ripe Purple Russian tomatoes, the plants seem to be taking their time ripening any more. Big Beefs and Early Goliaths have produced some very impressively large fruits, and they are finally coloring up to the point that I am checking them daily to see if they have attained full ripeness. So close, but not quite yet.
I’ve also been picking blueberries from the aging, neglected bushes near my greenhouse. The birds were quite annoyed at my audacity, thinking those bushes were only their domain. Over the last three days, I’ve managed to harvest about three pints of ripe berries. They aren’t fabulous — no supplemental water and damage from the periodical cicadas — but they aren’t half bad. And the price is right.
The Fortex pole beans are only just beginning to produce beans; I think the heat is very much slowing them down. Ditto for the Diva cucumbers; they’re growing vines and blooming, but fruit development seems in stasis.
I am ready for this summer time warp of non-ripening to end. Theoretically, after record high Fourth-of-July temperatures, my area’s chances of rain will increase slightly, and the weather will “cool” back down to the low nineties. I hope for once the weather forecasters are right.
If significant, frequent rains don’t visit my yard and garden soon, it will be a sad summer indeed.