Archive for category piedmont gardening
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?
Note: For those looking for information on the class I’m teaching in July, see my About page. Thanks!
Early May has brought out the reptiles in abundance at my house. Almost every time I walk anywhere on our five acres these days, I see/almost step on a snake or lizard. Amphibians of numerous species are also ubiquitous. I encountered two very large toads in different parts of the vegetable garden yesterday as I planted my summer squash seedlings.
A week or so ago, early afternoon brought out two lizard species on our front deck. We couldn’t miss them, because they were basking/interacting just outside our front door. Those are Green Anoles on the railing, of course. I’ve written about them several times, including here. They like that railing, and we see them there often.
The new additions were the skinks loitering on the deck below. They are either Five-lined Skinks or Southeastern Five-lined Skinks. The two species are very similar; apparently the experts distinguish between them by examining scales on the undersides of their tails. I wasn’t about to traumatize them or myself by trying to catch them for closer examination.
At first, I thought the Green Anoles were engaging in courtship behavior, but the longer I watched, the more I thought that perhaps it was a slow-motion reptilian territorial dispute. The most action occurred when one of them caught a small butterfly that was visiting one of the white salvia flowers growing beside the railing. Just as one anole caught its prey, the other rushed it, jostling it, so that it released the fluttering victim, which flew away as the two anoles settled in for more slow motion space wars.
The skinks were much less active than their green friends. They seemed content to stay nearly immobile, soaking up sun and ignoring me as I moved around trying to get better camera angles on them without startling them.
Skinks and Green Anoles are all welcome in my yard and garden, of course. Any critter that eats some of the ten gazillion bugs that occupy my garden is welcome. For every butterfly they devour, they almost certainly eat more unwelcome insect pests. I’ve read they eat spiders, too, and I’ve noticed fewer of the eight-legged creatures lingering around my front deck. Perhaps the lizards have reduced their numbers somewhat?
At least one large snake also occupies the area around our front deck, although it is not audacious enough to sun itself on the deck with the lizards (thank goodness!) I suspect it is the same Black Rat Snake I wrote about here, because of its size, but I can’t be certain. I almost stepped on it the other day as I was weeding around a daylily, and last week, it left me a present coiled around the large Spanish Lavender bush that thrives against the front of my house:
It’s a little hard to see in the above shot, but the shed skin is quite long. I got out a yard stick, gently eased the skin away from the lavender, and laid them side-by-side on a garden bench for comparison:
Here’s a slightly different angle:
I’m happy to report that it’s not just the cold-blooded clan that love the habitat-rich environments we’ve created for them. Bird song by many species begins before the sun has done more than hint at the arrival of a new day. All the summer visitors are here now: Summer Tanagers, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, and too many warblers to ever distinguish. The Red-breasted Nuthatches finally left for their northern breeding grounds. I’ll miss their bold visits to the suet feeders as I tried to re-fill them.
And don’t get me started on the summer weeds. My knees may never forgive me for the relentless torture I’ve subjected them to as I’ve tried to plant vegetables amid predictions of wildly varying temperatures.
Reptiles have it far easier in that regard. I suspect that knee pain is rarely, if ever, an issue for them.
Note: For those looking for information on the class I’m teaching in July, see my About page. Thanks!
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!
Talk about a one-sided fight, my plan to test the same varieties of grafted tomatoes against their seedling equivalents was a total bust. Why, you ask? Because when the grafted plants I ordered arrived last Thursday, this is what they looked like when I opened the box:
If you click on the above photo to enlarge it, you’ll see that the plant on the right was broken when I opened the box. The leaves of the plant on the left — although they look a bit greener — are also wilted beyond recovery. Why? The soil in their little pots was Dust Bowl dry. No moisture at all.
This is one of those times when I let my enthusiasm for cutting-edge plants push me past careful reasoning. As I mentioned in my first post about this back in January, gardening magazines and catalogs have been full of buzz about the benefits of growing grafted vegetables. I didn’t really buy the hype, but I was curious, which is why I decided to try growing the same varieties of grafted and seedling tomatoes to see for myself.
But I didn’t research carefully. I impulsively ordered my grafted plants from the same company where I order my tomato and pepper seeds. Seeds from this company always give me near-100% germination and yield consistently healthy, productive plants, so I assumed they’d deliver similar quality in their grafted plants. What I didn’t know — because I didn’t ask — is that my tomato seed company does not produce the grafted tomatoes themselves. They buy them from a wholesale nursery that, I gather, has patented a line of grafted vegetables, which they produce and sell to retailers.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this model, if all parties plan carefully to compensate for the travails of shipping tender summer vegetables across North America. However, if the plants I received are any indication, careful shipping was not part of the plan.
The company I order my tomato seeds from is in Wisconsin — an area where winter cold remains abundant. And from the insert with my grafted plants, I learned that the wholesale nursery that provided the grafted plants is in Oregon. Neither of these locations is, of course, near my location in North Carolina. And our growing seasons are not the same by a long shot. If I had thought about this more carefully, I would have realized that it was not likely that a company in Wisconsin could ship me healthy tomato plants in time for me to plant them out with the rest of my summer garden. In my defense, I did realize that the plants I received would probably be smaller than my seedlings, and I planned to account for that in my field trial. But I needed live plants to make that work.
As soon as I received my dying grafted tomato plants, I called the company that sold them to me. A very nice lady there asked me if the grafts were intact and the stems were still green. They were. She then instructed me to cut off all the dead/dying leaves, water and feed the plants in their pots, and put them in the sun. I confess I laughed out loud at these instructions.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But I’ve been growing tomatoes for almost 50 years, and I’ve never seen a leafless tomato stem re-grow leaves, especially when its roots have been traveling long distances in bone-dry soil.”
“This is what we’ve been told to tell customers, ma’am,” she replied. “The grafted plants are so vigorous that they are supposed to recover very quickly.”
So I followed her instructions. I cut off all the dead/dying leaves, transplanted the sad little stubs to slightly larger pots, and drenched them thoroughly with the fish emulsion/seaweed mix that I administer to all my seedlings. The company had provided a packet of commercial, non-organic, very potent fertilizer (20-20-20) that I was supposed to mix with water and use, but this would have ruined my little test by not using the same fertilizer, and I’m an organic gardener. Also, I think throwing that potent a chemical fertilizer onto deeply stressed plants is more torture than first aid.
Here’s what the plants looked like when I removed them from their shipping box and placed them in my greenhouse:
Here’s what the plants looked like immediately after their surgery:
Here they are transplanted, watered, and fed after a few days in the greenhouse:
And this is what they looked like about two hours ago:
I think it highly unlikely that these sad brown stubs will sprout new leaves, but I’ll leave them in the greenhouse another week before I give them a decent burial in the compost pile.
I imagine the folks from whom I ordered my plants would offer to send me new plants if I asked, but there’s really no point now. My seed-grown plants are ready for transplanting as soon as our uncharacteristically chilly weather pattern finally breaks down next week.
If folks from the wholesale nursery or the tomato seed company want to respond to this post, I’ll be happy to publish their responses. I’ve made every effort to represent their processes accurately, but if I’ve erred in a supposition somewhere, I’ll be happy to correct it.
Bottom line: I let my enthusiasm for a new plant fad overpower my years of gardening experience. It would have been interesting to see how grafted plants perform, but my seed-grown plants provide all the produce I need every year anyway.
If I discover a local source for healthy grafted vegetables, I might try one some time just to satisfy my curiosity. But I am blessed with rich garden loam, a long growing season, and healthy seed-grown transplants. New-fangled grafted veggies can’t possibly compete with all that.
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.
OK, it’s not a vegetable, but it is gorgeous, yes? That’s a Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule). Thirty years or so ago, it was easy to stroll through local forests (now covered by concrete) and find hundreds of these native orchids blooming beneath the canopy trees. Stumbling onto such a spring display never failed to lift my spirits.
Over 20 years ago, a friend of mine invited me to rescue any natives I desired off her family’s land before it was sold. The property included a rich woodland full of treasures, including the increasingly rare Pink Lady’s Slippers. They are reputed to be very difficult to move, so Wonder Spouse dug a wide circle around the plants, and we moved them, soil and all, to a spot beneath our tall pines, much like the spot where they had been growing. They bloomed reliably for many years, but that area is no longer as open as it was 20 years ago. Understory shrubs and trees were robbing the orchids of the light they needed to flourish. So last year, I moved them to my deer-fence-enclosed north slope, tucking them in with my new trilliums, transplanted bloodroots, Solomon’s Seals, and other spring ephemeral treasures. To have the little plant bloom well the very next spring was very satisfying to this gardener’s heart, and it confirmed my instinct that this orchid needed a better growing site.
That orchid is just one of the ZILLIONS of flowers blooming in my yard. Some have already come and gone. I’ve taken hundreds of pictures, but because I’m outside tending veggies and choking on pollen, I am behind on sharing the beauty with my kind readers. Another post, soon, I promise, will show you more of what has been going on.
Today, I want to report on the progress of my spring vegetable garden. I am hoping that showing my methods and results may help some newbie gardeners out there. Spring vegetable gardening in the southeastern US piedmont region can be tricky business because of our wild weather swings. After a week of 80+-degree days, for example, the weather seers are now forecasting thunderstorms followed by below-normal temperatures, with lows dipping back into the low 40s. At my house, that likely means the upper 30s. Translation: Don’t plant your tomatoes outside just yet, folks.
First, on behalf of my spud-obsessed Wonder Spouse, we are happy to report that the Great Potato Experiment appears to be working according to plan. After loitering beneath the surface of their planting bags for several weeks, all three varieties are now pushing out leaves. Here’s a shot of the bed with all three bags:
Here’s a closer view of the bag containing the fingerling potatoes. They were first to emerge:
The greens growing beneath Wonder Spouse’s improvised canopy are thriving, although this week’s heat wave seems to have slowed their growth a bit. I’m hoping the spell of rain and chilly weather will revive them. We’ve already devoured several fabulous salads created from this colorful mix of spring goodness.
I always worry about the veggies I must direct-sow. Carrot and beet seeds are small, and I can’t control their germination environment the way I can inside my little greenhouse. Despite my worries, all varieties are now up and beginning to grow visibly. First up were both beet varieties. Beet “seeds” are actually clusters of seeds. It’s the way they grow. So I always end up with little grouplets of seedlings that need to be thinned. I’ve saved some space in one bed, so that I can move at least some of the thinned plants there, rather than compost them all. Waste not, as the saying goes.
The first carrots to germinate were the unpelleted varieties I got as free trials from Renee’s Garden Seeds. I hypothesize that the clay pellets surrounding the varieties from Johnny’s Selected Seeds require time to dissolve into the soil, thereby slowing germination.
Even though I carefully spaced my pelleted carrot seeds, they ended up coming up a bit clustered. Not as much as the unpelleted varieties, but enough to require some thinning. I suspect that hard rain moved some of the seeds. And I also suspect that the pelleting process doesn’t always coat single carrot seeds. They are tiny; I can imagine whatever machine is used to coat the seeds might easily group and coat several together.
Meanwhile in the greenhouse, I have transplanted all the tomato and pepper seedlings to the pots they will occupy until the weather settles enough to move them to their outdoor summer beds. As usual, germination rates for the varieties I tried were nearly 100% in all cases. When I transplant the seedlings, I add just a bit of an organic fertilizer specially formulated for tomatoes and peppers. This will be enough to keep them happy until the weather settles.
When will that be, you ask? When the string of 80+-degree days started, I was thinking I might plant out the summer garden by next week. Now I’m thinking it will be the following week, or maybe even early May, before I can trust that nighttime temperatures will remain above 50 degrees at my house.
Fifty degrees is the critical temperature for tomatoes and peppers. Studies have shown that total fruit production for plants drops when temperatures go below this number. Now that I’m growing fewer plants, maximizing productivity is more of a concern for me than it was during my days of growing three dozen or so tomato plants per summer.
I’m hoping to direct-sow my bean seeds this weekend. The cool air temperatures won’t be an issue during the week or so it will take for the beans to germinate. The key to that is soil temperature, and I’m certain the beds are warm enough to stimulate rapid bean germination.
I’ll also be sowing squash seeds in my greenhouse this weekend. Although you can direct-sow squash seeds, I’ve found I start with healthier, more vigorous plants if I pamper them in my greenhouse for a couple of weeks before transplanting them to their summer homes.
Finally, sometimes when you hear hoofbeats, it is a zebra. A medical truism favored by physicians states that symptoms usually point to the most common malady associated with them: If you hear hoofbeats, it’s probably horses, not zebras.
But this week in my yard, among the gazillion Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies swarming over my blooming blueberries, one yellow butterfly was not like the others. Zebra Swallowtails are much pickier about larval food choices. Their caterpillars only dine on our native Pawpaws. Fortunately for me, a stand of about two dozen trees grows on the same steep slope overlooking my creek where my Bloodroots grow. This week, a single Zebra Swallowtail taunted me by nectaring on the abundant Henbit growing in my lawn. This common weed with purple flowers is hated by some, but pollinators love it, it’s not invasive, so I don’t argue with it unless it is in my way.
Unlike Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, Zebra Swallowtails do not tarry long at any individual flower. Just about the time I almost had my camera focussed on my visitor, it would dash off to another flower. Apologies for the somewhat blurred photo, but it is clear enough to see the diagnostic red markings that distinguish the Zebra from the Tigers.
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.
Just before dawn this morning, thick frost glimmered in the fading light of a full moon. As the sun topped the nearby ridge, surfaces sparkled — walks, benches, lawn, even the trees. The thermometer on my cold hill bottomed out at 26 degrees Fahrenheit before the strengthening Spring sun began its work — Winter cold. Too cold.
The Spring Peepers, which have lustily chorused off and on since late December, have been utterly silent for four days. The American Toads, which had added their exquisite soprano trilling descant to the thrumming of the Peepers two weeks ago, have also gone quiet. The Green Anoles, which sunned themselves on our gutters on warm days all winter, have not ventured from their sleeping chambers in a week. To be sure, our weather has not been fit for cold-blooded amphibians and reptiles.
The plants in my yard agree. Half-open flower buds have opened no further. Some have browned from freeze damage. Others seem suspended in time, waiting for temperatures that match the astronomical calendar, knowing the equinox was last week, wondering like me, I imagine, why March turned so cruel in its waning days.
But while the plants and cold-blooded animals sleep, the warm-blooded ones are scrounging for food. A herd of five pregnant does devours every blade of green from our floodplain at dusk, when they emerge from their hiding places on the other side of the creek. Dark shadows in darkening light, they drift around the trees, more ghosts than flesh in the dimness.
The birds, on the other hand, have refused to concede to Spring’s reluctant arrival. Growing flocks of American Robins patrol the landscape, plucking fat earthworms from rain-moistened soil, muttering in delight at each new-found morsel.
The Red-shouldered Hawks circle the floodplain, then dive at crowded bird feeders in the hopes of pinning a slow-moving Mourning Dove or a greedy Red-winged Blackbird that lingers too long for one more bite. When the birds elude their grasp, they settle for patrolling the ground, pulling back fallen leaves with sharp yellow talons to reveal earthworms, which they greedily devour. When they’ve had their fill, they fly off with more; hungry nestlings must be fed, even while their favorite cold-blooded prey sleep securely in their winter hide-outs.
Flocks of Purple Finches grow daily. I think groups migrating from further south have heard about the snows in their summer homes up north. They linger at my feeders — free food — all you can eat! A pair of Carolina Wrens busily inspect flower pots, deck underpinnings, and an open garage for potential nesting sites. Wood Ducks paddle up and down the creek, preferring water warmer than the air.
A Great Blue Heron stalks from sand bar to sand bar. Rising into the air on massive wings, its majestic flight starkly contrasts with its harsh squawk of frustration at finding nothing tasty.
Suet feeders are perpetually busy from dawn to full darkness. Woodpeckers and nuthatches are feeding nestlings, and insects are difficult to find in the frigid air. They are joined by increasing numbers of warblers, which must be arriving for spring nesting season. Like the woodpeckers, suet is their fall-back food until the insects finally emerge.
This morning as I filled the feeders, I heard the characteristic melodic gurgling call of Brown-headed Cowbirds. They usually arrive a few days after the warblers, lingering at my feeders until they pair off, and egg-heavy females deposit their eggs in the nests of unwary warblers.
Warm-blooded life does not seem to have the luxury of waiting for Spring to assert itself. Somehow it must carry on despite the dearth of natural food and warming nights. I keep my feeders filled and birdhouses clean, in the hopes that this eases their struggle a bit — for my local population anyway.
The weather forecasters predict that our perseverance will be rewarded. Warmer days are promised soon. I think perhaps they might be right. I spotted a bright yellow Eastern Tiger Swallowtail this afternoon struggling to make headway against a gusty northwest wind.
Any minute now, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will be arriving for their spring nesting season. I’d best dust off their feeders ASAP, because their usual early food sources — blooms of Red Buckeye and Eastern Columbine — remain tightly closed against the unseasonable chill.
Like the warm-blooded life surrounding me, my garden and I must persevere. Lettuce transplants huddle beneath garden fabric in the vegetable garden. I’ve been afraid to check on them, fearing that lifting the fabric might chill them more. And the tomato and pepper seeds I sowed a week ago have mostly germinated in the greenhouse. I’ve raised the thermostat to reduce the chances of cold air being fanned onto new-born seedlings.
Gardening is always an act of faith. This season, however, is requiring a bit more of it than usual. Believe, my friends. Soon we’ll be up to our knees in tall grass, mosquitoes, and summer squash.
But don’t blink. I have a feeling we’re mostly skipping Spring this year.
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.
The pile on the left consists of aged wood chips — all that’s left of the great Northern Red Oak that once grew in my backyard. The pile on the right is a load of mushroom compost that was delivered about three weeks ago. Both sit on thick black plastic (tarps work too) to prevent plant roots from invading my supply of soil-improving goodness.
I can tell by the search strings bringing folks to this blog that many new gardeners are hoping to grow vegetables this year. Hurray, I say! And welcome to the sisterhood/brotherhood of folks who grow at least a bit of their own food. It’s clear you have many questions, and today, I wish to address one of the key factors that separates successful growers from black thumbs — soil.
Clay soil challenges
In the southeastern Piedmont region of the US, our native soils are mostly clay. Here in North Carolina, we call it Carolina Red Clay, although I hear folks in Georgia put their state’s name in front of the Red Clay portion of the moniker. Contrary to common belief, clay is not low in soil nutrients. If it were, our Piedmont native forests and fields would not be so lush.
But clay is not ideal when you want to grow vegetables. Veggies prefer loamy soils rich in organic material. The organic material improves drainage and the moisture-holding capacity of the soil. It also provides a home for the zillions of beneficial soil organisms that facilitate the transformation of soil nutrients into forms accessible to the root systems of veggies and other plants. Soil organisms range from visible participants, such as earthworms (You can’t have too many!) to beneficial fungi and bacteria. Healthy soil is jam-packed with life.
Invest in raised beds
In my decades of experience, the only reliable way to create rich, healthy garden soil from red clay is to add as much organic material as you can. To make this practical, you must create raised beds. Yes, this is hard work in the beginning, but once created, you will reap tasty rewards for decades to come. Trust me on this. Raised beds improve drainage and help you build deep, rich soils suitable for growing root crops like beets and carrots.
The raised beds in my garden don’t look very raised, because they aren’t enclosed by boards or stone. Wonder Spouse and I created them by digging out the paths between beds, adding that soil to the beds to make them higher. We fill the paths back up to their original levels with wood chips. The chips suppress weeds and act as a moisture reservoir from which plants in the beds can draw as needed.
I am an organic gardener. I think chemical fertilizers are always a bad idea, because too much of what is applied — especially to lawns — washes downhill and into our streams and water reservoirs. Most of what washes is excess nitrogen, which creates massive disruptions in the ecology of our streams and lakes. The resulting pollution requires considerable expensive treatment before that water is safe to drink.
Because I’ve been adding compost to my beds for twenty years, the soil is quite healthy and contains many nutrients. But vegetable production is nutrient-intensive, so I do add organic fertilizers to my veggie beds. For members of the Solanaceae family (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, potatoes), I use a mix specially formulated for them. It seems to kick flower production into high gear, and since you can’t have tomatoes and peppers without flowers, I give these plants a boost.
For squashes, beans, and spring greens, I rely on a balanced organic fertilizer with a relatively low nutrient load. I’m looking for balance here, and just a bit of a boost to the soil already there.
Root crops — in my case, beets and carrots — seem to require a trace nutrient or two that my soil is low on. When I use an organic fertilizer specially formulated for these crops, I get much larger beets and carrots.
Follow instructions for these fertilizers. More is NOT better.
I do make my own, but it is never enough, not by a long shot. Resources abound with instructions for making compost. Your favorite search engine will tell you all you need to know.
Although I never make enough compost for my needs, a number of nearby suppliers offer excellent compost options. They will deliver partial truckloads, or if you have a pick-up truck (or a friend with one), they’ll load it for you. If you have neighbors, consider sharing a truckload.
The compost above is used by local organic mushroom growers. They mix a variety of organic components together for growing their mushrooms, but they discard it after one crop to prevent disease issues — much the way I rotate my crops annually, only they discard their growing medium. This year’s batch seems a bit more fibrous than last year’s, so I’ve decided to use it to mulch my veggies. It’s fibrous enough to suppress weeds, while it retains moisture and slowly allows nutrients to seep into the soil.
I’ll use these wood chips to mulch ornamental beds that aren’t close to my house (termites love wood chips), and to top off any paths in the veggie garden that have low spots. In my yard, wood chips usually last about three years before they break down into soil.
Soil for container-growing and seed-starting
I am of the opinion that potting soil offered in bags at home improvement stores and many garden centers is lousy. Now such merchants are pushing potting soil that already contains fertilizer to “save you time.” Please, I beg you, do not be fooled. First, these fertilizers are not organic, second, one size does not fit all when it comes to fertilizer, and third, while you may get initial rapid growth, the poor quality of the actual soil provided will eventually cause your plants to suffer.
If you are trying to grow veggies in containers on your patio, I recommend that you make your own soil by purchasing top-quality topsoil and compost from a local provider. Find such a person through recommendations from seasoned gardeners. All providers are not created equal.
If you are hard-core and have the time, you can create your own seed starting mix by baking good soil you created yourself in an oven to sterilize it. Personally, I don’t have the time, and I think it’s probably hard to ensure you kill all potential contaminators. I rely on a professional-grade soil mix that I’ve been buying for years from a local garden store. They are going out of business, alas. So next year, I’ll pay the extra cost of having it shipped in. It will totally be worth it.
The Metro-Mix soil blends are ideal for seed germination. I am certain they are the reason I achieve almost 100% germination from every flat I plant. These mixes contain no added nutrients. You don’t want fertilizers in the soil when you sow seeds. Seeds contain all the nutrients they need to germinate and initiate plant growth. After a week or two, I start adding a dilute mixture of fish emulsion/seaweed when I water them. This is all the seedlings need to flourish until it’s time to transplant them to the garden.
This blog entry grows long, so I’ll stop for now. I hope this helps all you garden newbies out there. I can’t emphasize enough the critical importance of excellent soil. If you’ve put in the time and resources to create good soil, almost any plant you grow will flourish, whether you grew it from seed yourself or bought a flat of seedlings from a local garden center. But if your soil isn’t healthy, your plants will not thrive.
So get out there, and get dirty, people!