Archive for category Favorite Plants
Color in the garden is a personal choice, and you will find entire books devoted to this subject. Personally, my eye is not offended by a rainbow of blooms of many species decorating my landscape, but I know that some gardeners with a perhaps more finely tuned aesthetic sensibility prefer to coordinate flower colors with more precision. In my landscape, however, pretty much anything goes.
That being said, I do have a special fondness for the color purple in all its myriad shades. Purple has always been a favorite color of mine, and because it is a mix of red and blue, I think it serves to help many other colors blend harmoniously in my landscape. Truthfully, I don’t much think about harmony when I add another purple-blooming and/or purple-leaved plant to my landscape. I just don’t seem to ever get enough variations on purple to stop me from wanting more.
The chive flowers above are on the lavender side of purple, but they still say “purple” to me. The red flowers in the distant background are those of Crimson Clover, a winter cover crop I sow to protect and enrich dormant vegetable beds.
The bit of delicate bronze/red/purple foliage in the back right corner of the photo is Bronze Fennel. The leaves of this herb are a subtle purple-red. The plant grows to about three feet, then sends up zillions of flower stalks that add another two feet to its height. Leaves impart a delicate anise scent/flavor to the nose and palate. It draws admiration from all visitors and requires no work on my part. I grow it for its beauty, and to serve as a food source for the caterpillars of the Black Swallowtail. We have a deal: they leave my carrots and dill alone, and they can have all the Bronze Fennel they want. The fennel always survives without significant impact, and I get more butterflies — win-win!
Today, I want to show you some of the purple plants currently (or recently) showing off in my landscape. I think they all bring passion to my garden.
Spring is iris season in my yard. I love all of them, but the three main types I grow are Siberian, bearded, and Louisiana. I’ve lost track of the name of the cultivar of the above Siberian iris, but its gorgeousness doesn’t need a name, does it? Irises thrive in my yard, I think because they receive nothing but benign neglect from me. If you make sure their rhizomes aren’t too deeply buried and that they get at least four hours of sun a day, the Siberian and bearded varieties do the rest of the work, multiplying steadily every year.
Here’s another Siberian iris whose cultivar name I’ve lost:
Bearded iris remind me of my mother and her mother. Both always grew lovely irises, mostly the pale lavender ones that smelled like bubblegum to my nose. I grow somewhat fancier ones. I invested in several varieties about twenty years ago, and they’ve been multiplying and beautifying ever since.
And here’s another one in the purple family:
I’ve showed you my other bearded iris variety before. This one’s name I remember, because it is named for how it looks:
My bearded irises are just finishing their bloom period, and the Siberians are about half done. But just yesterday, my Louisiana iris cultivars began their blooming cycle. Louisiana irises originated from that part of the US, but I’m not clear on the history of this type. I do know that they thrive in wet conditions, which is why I added them to some of the soggier parts of my floodplain, and one cultivar is planted beside the water feature in my front yard, where I can be sure it gets extra water.
The Louisiana iris by my front water feature is especially lovely. Its first bloom opened yesterday during a brief sunny spell between rain showers.
Although it looks a bit pinkish in this photo, its color is really in more of the magenta family. I think it looks especially fabulous surrounded by my Tradescantia cultivar ‘Sweet Kate,’ which is in stunning full bloom right now. A happy accident on my part is the way the yellow center of the iris echoes the color of Sweet Kate’s foliage.
Here’s a close-up of the flowers of Sweet Kate, so you can more fully appreciate them:
After I noticed the above iris blooming, I made a quick hike to the floodplain and discovered that the water-loving varieties down there are just opening. They will bloom in waves for several weeks, especially if the wonderful rains keep coming.
I don’t just love purple flowers, however. I’m also a huge fan of purple-leaved plants. Most of these have new leaves that start out purplish, then morph into green that might be tinged with purple. But some plants retain leaves that are distinctly in the purple family. Take for example, this ridiculously enormous Loropetalum:
Many Piedmonters have fallen in love with the native Redbud cultivar, Forest Pansy. If you site the tree so that it doesn’t get too much direct afternoon sun, the leaves will remain purplish all season.
One other purple-leaved beauty that I haven’t written about yet is Cotinus ‘Grace.’ It has been adorning my landscape for at least fifteen years now, and I really must show you its flowers and cotton candy puffs of pale pink seed heads when they appear this year. The contrast between leaves, flowers, and seed heads is made more dramatic by the distinctly purple color of the leaves.
These are a few of the purple highlights of my landscape at the moment. Even the wildflowers get into the act this time of year. The Lyreleaf Sage, for example, is currently adorning all parts of my lawn. But for now, I’ll close with another favorite purple perennial:
This cultivar was developed by the talented folks at the NC Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, then introduced into the horticulture industry, so that gardeners everywhere can enjoy it. The only trick to this beauty is to plant it exactly where it will thrive, because it doesn’t do well when you try to relocate it. Baptisias thrive in sunny, well-drained sites, reflecting their heritage as prairie natives. Site them wisely, and your reward will be ever-expanding, trouble-free plants adorned by long-blooming spires of lovely lavender pea-like flowers. What more could anyone afflicted by a passion for purple desire?
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As always happens this time of year, Spring is blasting through my yard so fast that I cannot keep up — at least, not in my blog postings. Since early April, every day new bloomers have started while others have stopped. Because I’ve been focused on the vegetable garden, I have not had time to share all the beauty that surrounds me. But fear not, faithful readers, I have been taking hundreds upon hundreds of photographs. Today’s post is the first installment designed to catch you up on all the glorious blossoms.
Let me take you back in time to the middle of April, when my 35-foot tall Two-winged Silverbell (Halesia diptera) was in full bloom. I told you about this spectacular understory native here, but I’ve mentioned it in several other posts over the years. If you search on the name, you’ll find all the relevant posts for this tree. The close-up of the flowers above demonstrates their loveliness — and their popularity with native pollinators.
Here’s what the entire tree looked like this year:
I had to stand pretty far away to get all of it in the photo. That little bit of white at the top right is a bit of the large dogwood trying to show off some of its flowers in the shot.
In the interest of fairness, that aforementioned native dogwood deserves a photo of its own:
To the left in the above photo, you can just see a few blooms of the native redbud variety, ‘Forest Pansy,’ and, of course that’s a bit of Loropetalum ‘Zhuzhou Fuchsia’ filling up the right side of the photo.
Because the showy part of a dogwood flower is actually its bracts, they aren’t quite as pure a white as the petals of the Two-winged Silverbell. But they persist much longer in the landscape.
And, since I mentioned Redbuds, I feel obliged to show you one of the standard natives in my yard in full bloom. Its lavender blossoms are emphasized by the green backdrop of the native Red Cedars behind it.
Now I want to turn your attention to the deciduous azaleas in my yard. I mention them in passing regularly, and you can find all the links by searching on the species or the category. The links that follow point back to the first posts from 2011 in which I described these wonderful understory natives.
Since 2011, all the azaleas have grown considerably. Some attain mature sizes in the 20′ x 15′ range, and I can tell that several of my specimens are well on their way to achieving their full potential. Some species and/or their cultivars bloom magnificently every year, while others seem to alternate years.
First to bloom, as usual, was Pinxterbloom Azalea (Rhodendron periclymenoides). It had its lushest bloom season so far, and thanks to the mostly cool weather, the blooms persisted longer than usual.
Soon after, it’s cultivar, ‘Purple,’ also bloomed, but its blooms were sparse this year.
Overlapping the bloom time of Pinxterbloom was my R. austrinum hybrid, Pastel #19. This shrub is always ridiculously floriferous, and its potent perfume carries halfway across my five-acre yard on spring breezes. When it is at peak bloom, it stops visitors in their tracks every time.
While Pastel #19 continued to bloom, another hybrid, Pastel #20 started its bloom cycle. Perhaps hybrid vigor explains why both these hybrids bloom with spectacular consistency every year.
I love the golden throats on these flowers.
Next to bloom was my R. alabamense, a native that is also reliably floriferous even without the benefits of hybrid vigor.
Its flowers emit a faint perfume that I enjoy for its subtlety.
The mostly cool spring has definitely prolonged bloom time for the azaleas this year.
My Oconee Azalea (R. flammeum) is over 8 feet tall now. Its form is more open than some of the other deciduous azalea species. My specimen bloomed heavily last year. This year, it’s not quite as floriferous, but still a knockout in the landscape.
Last of the azalea natives to bloom so far this year is Coastal Azalea (R. atlanticum). This native of southeastern US coastal plains keeps a much lower profile than my other deciduous azaleas. So far, it’s only about three feet tall in its high spots. The native species is a colonial spreader, but my cultivar, ‘Winterthur,’ is supposed to be more polite. It has gotten wider, but not aggressively so.
The flowers of Coastal Azalea are pure white, with no throat blotches as you see in R. alabamense. They are very potently fragrant — a cloying sweetness that is not my favorite. Because of its smaller size, I often smell the open flowers on this specimen before I see them the first time.
Flowers of a couple of my other deciduous azalea varieties are almost open for business. I’ll show you those soon. Meanwhile, let me close today’s post with a photo or two of my trellis full of blooming Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens ‘Major Wheeler’).
Unlike invasive Japanese Honeysuckle, the Major (as I like to call him) does not spread aggressively. However, it is enthusiastic, so I do cut it back severely every other year. The Major doesn’t object to this treatment, continuing to bloom so magnificently that every visitor to my house stops, gapes, and begs to know his name.
Note: For those looking for information on the class I’m teaching in July, see my About page. Thanks!
I’m reasonably certain that’s a Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica). This early-blooming spring ephemeral wildflower usually starts blooming just a day or two before the American trout-lilies in a moist woodland at the NC Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill. I’ve always thought them to be exquisitely delicate and lovely, and they were on my “Add Someday” list for our five acres of Piedmont chaos. No longer.
Yesterday, Wonder Spouse and I stumbled across two tiny blooming specimens in the middle of our currently moist floodplain. We haven’t mowed there yet, because we’re still picking up fallen limbs from winter storms, which is probably why it managed to push out flowers in time for us to notice. The Spring Beauties at the NC Botanical Garden grow in what becomes deep shade as the floodplain canopy trees above them leaf out. Our volunteers are in a sunnier locale, near a large pine, perhaps enough to give them afternoon summer shade. From this difference, I conclude that Spring Beauties require moisture more than shade.
Our volunteers likely found their way via floodwaters from our little creek, which is only about ten feet from their growing site, in an area that overflows whenever the creek waters escape their banks. We could not be happier to have this native join us: another native to love.
Wonder Spouse and I spent several hours wandering the floodplain/wetland habitats of our yard yesterday, because this is the time of year when their health is demonstrated by the ecological diversity of the beautiful native plants that thrive in the muck. Indeed, there is much to love in a healthy native wetland. There’s also much to worry about: invaders. Non-native, alien species remain the number two threat to healthy native environments world-wide (after outright destruction), and in my yard, we battle invaders constantly.
From Beauties to Bullies
Some battles are nearly hopeless. Japanese Honeysuckle and Japanese Stiltgrass are so aggressively pervasive in our North Carolina woodlands and backyards that the best most of us can do is to try to keep them out of selected areas — a favorite flowerbed perhaps, or a beloved tree, in the case of Japanese Honeysuckle.
Battles Still Worth Fighting
In my wetland/floodplain areas, the invader we are still fighting — so far, successfully <knock wood> is Chinese privet. This evergreen, common hedge shrub of older homes produces blue-purple berries that birds adore. They distribute seeds everywhere, but the privets are most dangerous to floodplain/wetland environments. In some areas in eastern North Carolina, the understory composition of vast acres of wetlands has been completely overtaken by invading privet. Because these non-natives are evergreen, they outcompete wildflowers, shrubs, and tree seedlings for light and other resources. Eastern North Carolina wetlands are becoming biological deserts, consisting of nothing but privet beneath canopy trees. When those trees die, no seedling trees will replace them, because they can’t compete successfully with privet. Eventually, our eastern wetland landscape will consist of miles and miles of nothing but privet.
Plant invaders are overlooked by most folks, because their progress is slower than, say, invading Emerald Ash Borers or Sudden Oak Death. To the untrained eye, green is green. But native animals and plants know how critical the differences are. If you love your southeastern Piedmont landscape, you should know too.
Whenever Wonder Spouse and I walk around our yard, we keep a sharp eye out for Chinese privets (Ligustrum sinense). Seedlings appear constantly, typically beneath trees, where birds deposit the seeds after feasting on privet fruits elsewhere. Yesterday, we spotted several larger shrubs that we had somehow overlooked previously. Greens blend together, and in crowded thicket areas (left for animal nesting habitat), a privet sometimes escapes our notice — for a while. I am especially vigilant in my hunt for this species in my wetland and along the edges of my creek. These areas are most vulnerable to this devastating invader.
While hunting privet yesterday, I was disturbed to discover that some of the Autumn Olives (Elaeagnus umbellata) invading the top of our hill have made it to the floodplain and wetlands. This pernicious invader has taken over many acres of upland environments, such as ridge tops, in my part of the southeastern Piedmont. This species and its close cousins (E. angustifolia and E. pungens) are all non-native shrub species. All are very bad news for the local environment, despite the berries that birds eat with gusto.
Wonder Spouse grabbed his trusty Weed Wrench and went to work on the invading Elaeagnus shrubs, pulling out long-rooted invaders from mucky ground, accompanied by a rather satisfying sucking sound.
Note the flowers just opening on this one:
This was a larger one that put up considerable resistance before Wonder Spouse prevailed:
A New Enemy
And, there’s more bad news for my little patch of Piedmont: Asiatic Hawksbeard (Youngia japonica). This relatively recent annual invader was introduced by the nursery trade. It was probably inevitable, given the number of plants from nurseries that I’ve added over the decades, that this horrifyingly aggressive invader would appear on our property.
To the casual eye, the basal rosette of jagged leaves of Youngia looks quite like that of a Dandelion. But if you look a little more closely, the dangerous differences become evident. It sends up clusters of small yellow flowers on bloom stalks. Dandelions only produce one, much larger yellow flower per stalk. Seeds of Asiatic Hawksbeard look somewhat like those of a Dandelion; they are both attached to white tufts that allow them to float far on breezes. But Hawskbeard seed tufts, like its flowers, are much smaller — and uglier — than those of Dandelions.
I know you’re thinking this is just one more lawn weed, right? Not really. Unlike our common non-native weeds — Dandelion, Henbit, Chickweed, Lambs Quarters — Asiatic Hawksbeard spreads much, much more aggressively. Its basal rosettes are dangerously easy to overlook, and now the experts tell me that they are moving into our dwindling natural areas. In these diminishing patches of native forest, Asiastic Hawksbeard is joining Japanese Stiltgrass, Japanese Honeysuckle, and larger invaders in displacing native wildflowers and other small native plants. Every new invading plant means more competition for food, light, and water for our natives. With no natural predators to slow them down here, their eventual takeover seems a near certainty.
Asiatic Hawksbeard has a taproot similar to that of a Dandelion, and if you don’t get it all when you pull it, the plant will regenerate. Also, you can’t just toss pulled Hawksbeards onto your compost pile. Flowers and even nearly-open flower buds finish their cycle and release seeds into the environment even after they’re pulled. Knowing this, I spent many, many hours last year carefully digging out this new invader from my yard wherever I found it. Every plant went immediately into a trash bag, which I tied and left in the hot sun to fry before adding it to my trash can. Despite my efforts, the Youngia is much more pervasive now that it was last year. And I’m seeing it in all parts of my yard now, whereas, last year, it was confined to only certain areas. The basal rosettes have a distinctive yellow cast, and the leaves are slightly fuzzy. I’ve become quite adept at spotting them. Next winter, whenever we spot one, Wonder Spouse and I are planning to resort to treating them with Round-up. Wonder Spouse and I are ridiculously outnumbered, and this is a war we don’t want to lose.
Reasons to Keep Fighting
And there is so very much to lose. On this Earth Day, let me leave you with a few positive images from our still-healthy wetland, where the wildflowers and other plants are wakening to warming weather with enthusiasm for another growing season.
On this Earth Day — and every day — I will continue to love the diverse and beautiful native species that bless my property. And I will battle non-native invaders as long as I can breathe. Clean water and air can’t exist without the help of healthy native environments — especially wetlands. Do your part today and every day by eradicating invaders in your yard. To learn more about invaders in Southeastern North America, start here.
As predicted, the warm temperatures arrived. Then they went directly to summer-hot temperatures. This week, we are in the 80s, which is too hot, considering that the canopy trees were mostly not even blooming yet. Forget about leaves. No shade. At all. Hot, hot, hot!
Now, of course, everything is exploding simultaneously. Pollen clouds haze the air, tree buds swell visibly, and the critters have all moved into full-out courtship mode. Toads trill from twilight to dawn. Bird song sweetens the air, along with the perfume of deciduous magnolias. Grass needs mowing. Ticks and mosquitoes lurk everywhere, hungry for blood. Ah, springtime in the southeastern piedmont.
I have managed to take a few pictures, but the plants and critters are moving so fast now that I’m having trouble keeping up. The vegetable garden, of course, has taken priority. My beautiful bed of greens that had been huddled under a garden cloth tent for warmth were suddenly too warm in there. But the sun is now too strong for them. Wonder Spouse devised a clever fix. He cut the fabric tent and shaped it into a canopy that protects the lettuces, spinaches, and Asian greens from direct noon-day sun, but allows them access to more gentle angled light and better access to passing rains.
Here’s what the bed looked like last Friday:
Here’s a closer view, so you can more easily see the plants:
Now the greens are large enough for single-leaf harvesting. Instead of waiting for greens to fill out as heads, I harvest individual leaves as they attain salad size. I’ll be picking greens for our first home-grown salad tomorrow morning as the sun comes up. Veggies and herbs are at their harvestable best first thing in the morning before the sun has begun to melt them. I can just about taste those tender sweet greens now…
Meanwhile in the greenhouse, the summer veggies, flowers, and herbs are well germinated and growing strongly. The tomatoes and peppers will need to graduate to larger pots in the next few days. The basils and flowers will take a little longer.
Since my last update, I have also direct-sowed into the garden beds several varieties of carrots and two of beets. I haven’t seen any signs of them yet, but it’s only just now been about a week. I’m hoping that this current bout of summer-like heat will not prevent these cool-weather veggies from germinating well. After this Friday, our temperatures are predicted to return to normal, so I’m hoping the spring garden can hang on until the cooler spring temperatures return. Spring vegetable gardening is always a gamble here. The summer garden is easier. You can almost always count on the weather turning hot enough for tomatoes and peppers to thrive.
Of course, much more is going on all over the yard and gardens. Last weekend, Wonder Spouse helped me re-activate our front water feature:
The pitcher plants in two of the pots are not as robust this year. I allowed far too many cardinal flowers to seed into the pots with the pitcher plants, where they proceeded to outcompete the pitchers. I spent several days digging out several dozen cardinal flowers in the hopes of re-invigorating the pitchers. Now it’s a waiting game to see if they can recover.
The trees are blooming about three weeks later than they did last year. Native redbuds are just opening in my yard:
And my Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is only now pushing out flower buds. Ditto for my Eastern Columbines. Both of these natives are usually open by the beginning of April, just in time for the arrival of Ruby-throated hummingbirds migrating up from their southern winter homes. I hadn’t seen any hummers, but judging by the arrival of my summer warblers, I decided to put out a feeder last Friday. Several hummingbirds were enjoying the feeder by the next morning, and I’ve seen them on it often since. Without their native flowers, they really need the sugar water I offer to help them recuperate from their long migration.
My native coral honeysuckle is usually blooming by now, too. This year, the one on my trellis is only just beginning to produce flower buds. The one draped over a tree stump near the creek is slightly further along. It’s buds at least show color.
The ferns are finally showing signs of life. Here’s a group of naturally occurring Cinnamon Ferns that thrive in my wetland:
Inside my deer fence, my Christmas Ferns are also showing new growth:
I can’t close today’s post without mentioning the currently blooming deciduous magnolias. Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’ had a record extended blooming period of six weeks for me. The cool weather kept the flowers fresh, and the cold snaps only browned a few buds. Magnolia acuminata ‘Butterflies’ did not fare as well. When the heat hit it, all the buds opened at once, looked gorgeous for about two days, and now most of the petals have already fallen to the ground, surrendering to summer-like early April heat. But when they were fresh they were lovely.
Here’s the tree last Friday:
Here’s a close-up of the canary-yellow blossoms just as they were opening a few days ago:
As is always the case, my Magnolia acuminata ‘Elizabeth’ is blooming about a week behind Butterflies. Actually, a bit less than a week this year, likely due to our 85-degree day today. Elizabeth is taller than Butterflies. My 17-18-year-old specimen is about 50 feet now, and when the flowers open, the effect is jaw-dropping. Here she is from a distance this morning. I had to stand fairly far back to get all of her in one shot:
Then I took a few steps closer and tried for a shot with as much of the tree in it as possible:
And, finally, here are a few branches closer up, so that you can see the gorgeous flowers.
Elizabeth’s flowers are a much paler yellow than those of Butterflies, and under harsh sunlight, they fade to parchment white. The effect is lovely and more subtle than Butterflies. The flowers of both trees emit a perfume so strong that deep inhalation just about knocks me over. On a spring breeze, I can smell their fragrance across half of my five-acre yard.
There’s more, of course, what with everything exploding simultaneously in the heat. I’ll try to do a better job of keeping you posted here, but there’s just so gosh darn much to do out there. Weeds, for example. They have exploded along with all the invited plants.
But I’m not complaining. Hard work is part of the therapy of gardening. I’ll feel downright righteous when I sit down tomorrow evening to dine on our first garden salad of the year. It really is true, you know. The food does taste better when you grow it yourself.
On behalf of winter-weary gardeners everywhere, I bid you welcome! Spring — you are here, right? It is, of course, the day of the vernal equinox, that astronomical milestone that marks your onset. I ask, because, well, you seem to be a bit more capricious than usual this year.
Yes, the plants in my yard are showing definite signs of moving toward a new growing season, as evidenced by the beautiful native wildflowers in the above photo, blooming yesterday in my yard. They are just beginning to reach peak bloom; the ones in my north garden only yesterday peeked above ground. By last year’s vernal equinox, these flowers were nearly done.
Likewise, my beautiful Magnolia ‘Butterflies’ was well past peak bloom by last year’s equinox. This year, flower buds are just now swelling, as you can see here:
The native spicebushes (Lindera benzoin) are reaching peak bloom just in time for your arrival. Last year, they maxed out two weeks earlier. I love the tiny specks of bright yellow that adorn every branch.
One non-native early bloomer — my large Winterhazel — is about a week and a half behind last year’s peak blooming moment. The photo here was taken yesterday, and you can see that the flower clusters are just now pushing out their pendant strings of sunny bells.
My other big non-native bloomers — the loropetalum shrubs — seem to be more attuned to daylight changes than temperature. Flower buds are brimming with magenta color; a few are flaunting their bright strappy petals. But I’m guessing that the full spring display will occur just about the same time it did the previous two years.
That’s all well and good, Spring. A little variation in bloom time among the ornamentals on my five acres of North Carolina Piedmont is entirely to be expected. That variability is actually part of what keeps gardening exciting; I never know when and what each season will bring.
On the other hand, your capriciousness is also a source of frustration. You see, I had a feeling you were going to take your time coming this year. So I started my spring greens in the greenhouse later than last year, planning to transplant them into their permanent beds about now. I expected later frosts, maybe even a light freeze, but because I cover the transplants in protective garden fabric, I figured they would remain unharmed.
But, Spring, you have turned my planting schedule upside down with this predicted ten-day bout of well-below-normal temperatures that includes a very hard freeze tomorrow night. The weather seers are calling for a low of 26 degrees Fahrenheit at the local airport. Here in the boonies, that will likely mean a low hovering in the mid-teens.
I can’t put tender transplants into the ground when you are bringing winter temperatures to my garden. That would be plant murder! Meanwhile, right on schedule, my onion starts arrived in the mail two days ago. Somehow, I must persuade them to be patient, because I can’t plant them yet either.
Spring, it’s getting crowded in the greenhouse. The greens are itching for permanent digs. My pots of ornamental plants that overwinter in the greenhouse are all putting out new growth, gaining size and enthusiasm for your arrival daily.
I know I can’t stop your games, Spring, so I’ll do my best to convince the greens to be patient a few days. I think I know what you’re up to. After lingering early and long last year, you don’t want to party here at all. I think you’re planning to pound us with winter weather until April arrives, and then depart almost immediately, letting summer’s temperatures sear us before the canopy trees are even properly leafed out. The models of the weather forecasters seem to agree. They are calling for above-normal temperatures for most of the US during the month of April, which is why I’m going to sow tomato and pepper seeds in the germination chamber in my greenhouse later today.
I love you, Spring, really, I do. But, frankly, your whimsy is one of the reasons my hair is as white as the new snow covering Boston — again — this week.
Can you feel it? The Spring Peepers can; they sing in my swamp with more vigor every day and night. Even the House Finches are feeling it. One came to the bird bath on my deck this afternoon with his mouth full of nesting material. He dropped the bundle of grasses beside his feet to drink, but the strong March winds blew it away before he’d taken a sip. I don’t think he was really ready to build a serious nest anyway. Perhaps the imminent Vernal Equinox (March 20) has him a bit addled.
I’ve been waiting for below-normal temperatures to abate so that I can start preparing my spring vegetable beds. It looks like this weekend will finally bring proper preparation conditions — and the amazing Wonder Spouse has even agreed to lend a hand. The timing is good. The seven kinds of greens growing in the greenhouse will be transplanting size very soon. And I need the room — it’s nearly time to start sowing tomato and pepper seeds.
I did not originally intend to grow seven kinds of greens this year. I had settled on five from my favorite seed supplier — Johnny’s Selected Seeds. But then I got my complimentary seed order form from Renee’s Garden (courtesy of my membership in the Garden Writers Association), and temptation overcame me.
This season’s spring garden will consist of the seven greens currently growing in the greenhouse:
- Lettuce, New Red Fire
- Lettuce Salanova Home Garden Mix (more about this another time)
- Lettuce, Coastal Star
- Spinach, Emu
- Vitamin Green Greens
- Spinach, Summer Perfection
- Asian Greens Mix
The first five are from Johnny’s, Summer Perfection is from Renee’s, and the final Asian greens mix was a freebie seed package from some other supplier, whose name I’ve managed to lose track of.
Also currently growing are seedlings of Bouquet Dill from Johnny’s and Blue Boy Cornflowers from Renee’s. Ideally, dill is best direct-sowed, but unpredictable weather — mostly in the form of hard rains — usually gives me sparse results when I direct-sow. As long as I transplant these herbs while they’re small, their somewhat temperamental tap roots should adjust without difficulty. One can never have too much dill, in this gardener’s opinion.
The Cornflowers are gorgeous blue annuals that bloom early, laughing at late frosts. I love the intense blueness of the flowers, so when I saw Renee was offering some, I jumped at the chance.
Because these are early spring plants, I didn’t use my germination chamber with the propagation mat to warm them. They don’t need the help. Even my cool greenhouse (I set the heater to come on at 45 degrees Fahrenheit) didn’t slow them down. All but the dill germinated in under five days. The dill took seven. The cornflowers won the contest, sprouting in less than 24 hours — now that’s enthusiasm!
When the garden beds are ready (i.e., weed-free), I’ll tuck in the greens, mulch with some fibrous compost mix I picked up from a local supplier, and enclose them in garden cloth supported by wire hoops. The cloth will protect the greens from all but the hardest of late freezes, and will also discourage rodents, who have learned to slip through my fence and help themselves — either field rats or meadow voles — or both.
I’ll be direct-sowing several varieties of carrots and two varieties of beets as well. Carrot seeds are as hard as dill seeds to germinate reliably, but Johnny’s offers pelleted seeds. They encase the seeds in little balls of clay, which dissolve when exposed to moisture. It is vastly easier to place these little clay balls where I want them — and to keep them where I put them. This year’s root crops will include:
- Beet, Red Ace
- Carrot, Early Nelson
- Carrot, Sugarsnax
- Carrot Nantes Starica
- Carrot, Snacking Rotild
- Beet, Dutch Red Baron
The last three are more freebies from Renee’s Garden that sounded too good not to try. Those carrots aren’t pelleted, so I’ll have some side-by-side data for comparison.
The only other spring crop this year will be Wonder Spouse’s potatoes. The order is due to arrive next week. I’ll keep you posted on that experiment, which I mentioned previously here.
I’ve given up on peas, either English or Sugar Snap varieties. Weather patterns have grown too unreliable for them, no matter how early I get them in the ground. Early heat waves destroy pod production just as flowering grows enthusiastic.
Early heat is the main enemy in a North Carolina Piedmont spring garden. Most of the greens I picked were chosen specifically because of their purported resistance to early summer heat. Carrots and beets are less affected — unless the heat leaps in the 90s in April — and heaven help us all if that happens!
Even after the spring garden is planted, there will be no time to rest. The summer beds will need to be prepared to receive the tomatoes and peppers that I haven’t even started yet (another week or two). As soon as the ground is warm enough, I’ll direct-sow the beans. I’ll start the squash seeds after the tomatoes and peppers are well germinated. They need less time to reach transplanting size.
So much to do, and an aging body to do it with. But Wonder Spouse and I will persevere, knowing that the rewards are delicious and good for us too.
But first, all those vigorous winter weeds must be removed from the planting beds. Charge!
Is is just me, or has February been a strange month? Folks in the Midwest are still covered in ice and snow. Here in the southeast, it was mostly rain — rain we really needed. But weather always seems to have pros and cons, doesn’t it? The Stewartia above — a lovely little non-native ornamental I adore — grows beneath giant, aging River Birches. River Birches usually only last about 100 years, and my enormous, gorgeous specimen trees are most decidedly declining. They drop small branches routinely. After the last rain, however, the giant nearest my Stewartia decided to blow its top.
Here’s a closer view of the topless branch.
And here’s more of the River Birch to provide a sense of scale.
Fortuitously for those growing beneath this forest giant, its top fragmented as it fell to the ground.
The large piece in back partially crushed part of our deer fence, but Ace Wonder Spouse was able to roll away the large chunk enough to free the fence, which he then tacked back into position — at least well enough to thwart hungry deer, we hope.
The poor Stewartia really got the worst of it. A number of branches were ripped from its trunk. Wonder Spouse will prune the damaged areas as much as possible soon.
All in all, it could have been much worse, and I wouldn’t trade a drop of the rain that fell for the damage done. The rain had an immediate impact on plants and animals. Buds are swelling, birds and frogs sing more loudly every day. Despite below-normal temperatures and snow flurries promised for this weekend, Spring will have its way with us soon enough. I offer abundant proof:
The rain brought down many branches, but the creek never quite flooded. That’s how dry we’ve been. Today’s drought monitor update from the weather seers has FINALLY moved us from the Moderate Drought category to Abnormally Dry. Not great, but better.
Personally, I’m hoping March lives up to its advertised lion-like entrance, keeping us chilly and wet until I have time to clean up the yard, finish the pruning, weed and mulch the front beds, prepare the vegetable garden … The list of chores grows exponentially with every passing hour.
So, February, bon voyage. It’s been — interesting. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
After returning home from errands today, I noticed quite a few flowers blooming among my five acres of green chaos. I thought of all the folks buried under feet of snow, and decided to offer them some hopeful signs of spring. It was approaching noon when I shot these, so apologies in advance for the less-than-stellar quality of some these pictures.
Long ago — over 20 years — I planted a number of traditional spring-flowering bulbs here and there in the yard. I haven’t done anything right by them since. I haven’t divided them, fed them, mulched them (on purpose — some get leaf mulch because they’re under trees), or given them any supplemental water. Despite total neglect, they brighten our late winter/early spring landscape every year.
The daffodils have mostly spread in place, making ever-larger clumps. However, the crocuses travel. I don’t know if birds, insects, or rodents are moving the seeds or corms, but somehow, I now find blooming crocuses in unexpected places. Take, for example, those bright yellow beauties in the top photo. They just appeared beside my pink flowering apricot a few years back, as if to keep it company. That tree has finished blooming, but the location continues its spring show, thanks to these sunny crocuses.
Another volunteer crocus is blooming in deep shade beneath the loropetalums. Every year, I mean to relocate it, but, of course, I forget it when the leaves disappear.
Some crocuses are still blooming where I planted them — more or less. I love the subtle striping on these paler lilac beauties.
I almost overlooked the blooming dwarf crested iris I planted some years back. These diminutive specimens are native to Piedmont floodplains, but horticulturalists have created a number of cultivars. I have long forgotten the name of this variety that continues to thrive among overgrown Verbena ‘Homestead Purple.’
I wrote some time ago about all the volunteer wildflowers — many non-native originally — that have naturalized and taken over much of my “lawn.” Blooming vigorously right now is this little Speedwell. I think it’s Veronica persica, but don’t hold me to that. This clump is growing in my gravel driveway with the rest of the weeds.
Both of my Prunus mume ‘Peggy Clarke’ specimens are still blooming. Peggy Junior is nearly done; she was more severely impacted by a recent bout of sub-freezing weather. Peggy Senior is protected from north winds by our garage. Her branch tops are still filled with fragrant rosy flowers; abundant honeybees enjoy this resource every sunny day now.
As I mentioned previously, this is the first year that my non-native Parrotia persica has bloomed abundantly. It’s still doing so, but most of the flowers in this picture are spent. The brighter pops of magenta here and there are the currently blooming flowers.
The daffodils on the floodplain open first, because the area is a tad warmer than the hilltops. Ice Follies is always the first daffodil to defiantly declare spring’s arrival — sometimes in snow!
The snow drops I showed you in the previous post are now fully open.
About 8, maybe 10 years ago, I planted a hybrid Hellebore. This clump of Lenten Roses grows more enormous every year, and, no, I haven’t gotten around to dividing it. As is usually the case, its flowers begin opening well before the onset of Lent most years.
Inside the deer fence on the north side of my yard, two recently planted specimens are showing their late winter flowers right on schedule. The Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas) from last year is completely covered in bright yellow flowers. The new plant we added this year is blooming some, so I’m hoping we’ll get at least a couple of fruits, now that I’ve provided a source for cross pollination.
My hybrid witchhazel, Aurora, is just starting to show off its strappy yellow-and-orange petals. It should be more impressive after a few more years of growth.
Up front beneath the shelter of mature loblolly pines, Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’ is about to explode into snow-white star bursts of potently fragrant glory — assuming no freezes brown petals prematurely.
I can’t close before showing you a couple of native trees now in glorious full bloom throughout my yard. The Red Maples are heating up the forest canopy with their usual crimson display.
Some feet below in the subcanopy, American Hazelnut trees are ornamented by numerous dangling male catkins. Every breeze makes them dance, releasing pollen onto the tiny female flowers scattered among them. These native shrubs/small trees disappear into the landscape when everything leafs out. But right now, they are quite conspicuous. As I wandered around my yard today, I discovered a large specimen growing in my backyard that I had never noticed before.
Then as I walked the creek line, I realized that at least a half dozen more specimens were blooming on my neighbor’s land across the creek. I spotted a very large tree over there so covered in catkins that I wondered how I’d never seen it before.
One final enthusiastic bloomer will close today’s post. This rosemary has been growing against my house for a number of years. I always intend to prune the branches away from the siding when the plant stops blooming, but I’ve discovered it doesn’t really ever stop blooming. I certainly can’t bear to cut it now, when every branch is covered in delicate blue flowers beloved by hungry foraging honeybees. I’ll try to remember to do this in summer, when bloom enthusiasm decreases, and the pollinators have myriad other options.
All of these early flowers are signaling me that it’s time to start some spring vegetable seeds in the greenhouse. When the weather moderates a bit, that will be my next task. Happy February, ya’ll.
I was beginning to think we were going to have another winter like last winter, which was no winter at all. Finally, last Friday, the Arctic Express, as the weather seers call the Canadian air delivery mechanism, chugged into North Carolina.
What began as cold rain morphed by nightfall into water-laden snowflakes. The ground was so warm from the 70-degree weather preceding this event that we knew the snow wouldn’t survive long, prompting Wonder Spouse to set out with his camera as soon as it was light enough for photo-documentation. We got about an inch, but by the time the above photo was taken, about a half-inch on the ground had already disappeared.
As I had described previously, my flowering apricots began blooming about a month ago. The snow arrived just as they approached peak bloom. It will mar open flowers, but the buds still tightly closed might live to bloom another day — maybe. Here’s a close-up of the snow on Peggy Clarke:
Snow does a fabulous job of highlighting the cascading branches of the January Jasmine I wrote about here.
But like the flowering apricots, snow-on-petal contact does damage open flowers. Unopened buds should likely be fine.
Evergreen plants don’t enjoy heavy, wet snow. The Florida Anise-trees seem especially prone to collapsing under the weight of even such a light snow event:
Snow does a wonderful job of accentuating the shapes of bare tree branches. Weeping and cascading forms look especially lovely. Our Chinese Redbud demonstrates what snow can do for a plant:
This was an ideal snow event — small amounts on warm ground, thereby minimizing road hazards and cabin fever duration. However, it seems that once the gate to the Arctic Express is opened, closing it may prove somewhat difficult. Here in the central Piedmont region of North Carolina, we are in for the first bitter cold week we’ve had in almost two years. And now the weather seers are threatening us with a sleet event for this coming Friday.
Unlike snow, sleet is never good for a garden. Its weight is too much for branches almost immediately, and if the temperature line dances between sleet and freezing rain, ice cocoons everything. Branches break, power outages abound, winter earns its reputation as least-favored season.
But if the ice comes, we gardeners will deal with it, as we do with every challenge thrown at our plant charges. And if I end up huddled with Wonder Spouse in a chilly, dark house, I will try to focus on the benefits of the cold outbreak: fewer spring ticks, mosquitoes, and garden diseases.
Spring’s sure arrival will seem all the sweeter after winter’s cold embrace.
The handsome creature above was kind enough to park itself on a large oak in our backyard on a cloudy New Year’s Day. Wonder Spouse grabbed my camera (it was closer) and managed to catch the Great Blue Heron just as it tensed before gliding down to the creek. As we can imagine the bird’s great wings expanding wide for flight, so can we imagine ways to expand our gardens.
Over the decades, I have become a more selective gardener. In early years, I planted any plant offered me, and rarely looked farther than my local stores for transplant possibilities. I am now much more selective, saving the diminishing choice spots in my yard for specimens like the Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica) I’ve told you about before here.
In that post, I mentioned that I’d never seen my specimen bloom. Having read that the flowers are inconspicuous, I thought perhaps I’d overlooked them on my tree. But now I’m fairly certain that my tree had simply not bloomed for me — until now. Now all the upper branches are covered in fat flower buds just beginning to show hints of maroon petals within.
I finally found one bud within reach of my camera that was showing the color of the strappy petals.
The flowers are not showy, unlike the spectacular fall color display of the leaves. But their appearance expands the presence of this specimen tree, making it a magnificent year-round addition.
My garden expands as my transplants mature and prosper, but I have other ways to increase my garden’s presence in the world — by sharing it with others.
Like most gardeners, I’ve been giving away plants for many years. Some special plants just love to multiply, and it gives me great pleasure to share them. My shared wealth expands my garden’s reach to both ends of my home state and many points in between. I hear from the owners of those distant gardens when one of my garden babies blooms. It’s fun, for example, to hear whose daylily bloomed first and for how long.
It delights me to know that sometimes my garden expands itself by transferring the gardening bug to others. A housemate from graduate school — a city girl with no experience with the green world when we first met — told me years later that she plants a vegetable garden every year now. Working the garden with me — and tasting the results — persuaded her of the benefits of this pursuit. I am thrilled every time I manage to bring another soul over to the green side.
In recent years, I’ve expanded my garden in other ways. I grow extra vegetables each year, so that — weather and pests permitting — I can share them with friends and the local food bank. The Garden Writers Association sponsors a formal program to foster this idea. They call it Plant a Row for the Hungry.
You can do likewise in your garden. Or if you don’t have space for a food garden in your yard, consider helping with a community garden. The university in the town adjacent to mine runs a successful community garden program on campus. The bounty is shared with university staff and other community members who want to supplement their diets with fresh-grown produce.
And the land conservancy organization in my region supports what it calls the Local Farms and Food platform of their mission by allowing local food banks to operate community gardens on some of the arable lands being preserved by this organization. Arable land — an increasingly scarce commodity in my rapidly urbanizing area — is not just preserved, but put to its best use.
I’m sure my region isn’t the only place with such garden-expanding opportunities. If you are inclined to try expanding your garden in such ways, check with your local colleges, food banks, and land conservancy groups. If they aren’t already growing food to feed the hungry, maybe you can help get such a program started.
I also expand my garden by sharing it with friends who need a little extra beauty in their lives. Last year, I cleaned up and planted a tiny garden space at the home of a friend battling a major illness. Knowing she would be spending many days recuperating at home, I hoped that this small plot full of color would lift her spirits. Because she likes to cook, I also planted a pot full of culinary herbs that could sit on her patio, a few steps from her kitchen.
This year, another friend recovering from a major health challenge has a lovely empty garden space beside her new house. She is excited about planting this area with native flowers that will bloom enthusiastically and attract pollinators. I’ve begun potting up some of my garden multipliers for later spring transplanting to her new bed. And during yesterday’s absurdly mild weather here, I took cuttings of rosemary and Spanish lavender, placing them in a flat in my greenhouse. By the time spring arrives, they will be well-rooted and ready for new homes.
In my opinion, every southern Piedmont home should have a few rosemary shrubs growing nearby, for enhancing culinary masterpieces and inhaling their aromatically therapeutic properties.
As the years make my joints creakier, expanding my physical garden at home will likely become impractical. But I will always be able to expand my green world in these other ways.
As you readers of this blog plan your own spring and summer gardens this year, I encourage you to expand your thinking beyond your personal garden space. Whose life can you lighten by sharing your garden this year?