My book and web site

Check out my book, The Sustainable-Enough Garden, available on Amazon, and the book's web site at See more plant photos on Instagram.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Flower rave at Locust Grove

A wedding in Poughkeepsie afforded an unexpected treat when I noticed an extensive pollinator garden outside the pavilion where a lovely rehearsal dinner was underway. This was at Locust Grove, the nineteenth century estate of Samuel Morse, inventor of Morse code. Early the next morning I went back to study the plants in more detail and take pictures.

Looking toward the Hudson from Locust Grove

    I recognized familiar annual and perennial flowers blooming in full sun in a long straight border. It was impressive to see how many insects were mobbing the flowers, including butterflies, bees, and many others. I was delighted to see that mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum), had a prominent place in the garden’s design. 

Mountain mint punctuated by cosmos

Mountain mint’s white bracts stood out in clumps along the length of the garden, and pollinators were swarming around it. 

    Last month I brought home a little seedling of this plant, a gift from Peggy Anne Montgomery of American Beauties Native Plants at the Garden Bloggers Fling. Peggy Anne predicted it would attract lots of insects, and here it was in action.

    The Locust Grove garden combined exuberant flower colors, from orange cosmos and rich red zinnias to blue sages and purple tall verbena.


Tall verbena (Verbena bonariensis)

    At the Fling, Peggy Anne emphasized the importance of providing not only flowers for nectar but also host plants. These are the plants native insects lay their eggs on so that their larvae will have the food they need to eat.  An insect may be able to use nectar and pollen from many kinds of flowers, but most need particular host plants in order to reproduce. In Bringing Nature Home, entomologist Doug Tallamy estimates that ninety percent of native leaf-eating insects are specialists, depending for food on a narrow group of plants that co-evolved with them.
    Organic farmers make sure to encourage native flowers, whether they’re weeds or intentionally planted selections, near their crops to maintain a population of pollinators and beneficial insects that live off leaf-eating bugs. Keeping these insects around improves a farm’s yield and maintains a healthy ecosystem.

A tiger swallowtail sips nectar from a zinnia

    I’m trying to do the same thing on a much smaller scale. By planting some of the lovely insect-attracting plants I saw flourishing at Locust Grove, I’m hoping to build up a balanced population of herbivorous insects and insect predators. 

    The herbivores at the base of the food web provide food for birds and mammals as well as pollinating plants we need for food. The predators, eaters of other insects, will keep the leaf-eaters from laying waste to my garden—at least that’s the hope. 

A dragonfly in my garden is a top insect predator

Fortunately my livelihood doesn’t depend on my flower or vegetable crops, so I can have fun experimenting.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Hot, dry and doing well

Hydrangea leaves are drooping. Wild ginger leaves are lying flat on the ground. The vegetable garden is parched. All kinds of leaves I’ve never seen chewed on before have been nibbled by thirsty mammals or insects. 

What chewed these clematis leaves?

The tomatoes in the vegetable bed have disappeared. Despite the bird netting I encased them in, I think they were harvested for their water content by super-motivated squirrels. Even tough lily-of-the valley leaves are edged in brown. Dead brown leaves announce lost branches on roses and boxwood. The list goes on.

    It’s easier to enumerate what’s doing well in the drought than to list all the casualties. I’m watering, but I’m clearly not keeping up. Yet some of my plants are looking good. In the vegetable bed, borage and nasturtiums are undeterred, blooming in the hot sun.

Nasturtiums like it hot and dry

    A few perennials are thriving unexpectedly. The epimediums have some chewed leaves, but the plants look just as fresh and green as they did in June.  Heucheras too are going strong. A white phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘David’) is putting on a good show. The meadow rue I wrote about last week keeps flowering. The last daylily in the series is blooming profusely; its companions flowered in July. 

This is especially impressive because these plants are outside the reach of the sprinkler irrigation system. I give them a quick drink when I’m watering pots of houseplants that are spending the summer on shelves in the driveway. Nearby the honeysuckle against the house hasn’t batted an eye. Its main flush of flowers came in spring, but it’s still putting out occasional blooms, and it’s producing fruit for birds to eat. 

Honeysuckle fruits

    This is the first year that my potted basil looks good in late summer. Usually by this time it has flowered and isn’t producing many new leaves. This year the plants are still full, and the leaves are large and shiny. 

I’ve read that herbs don’t like too much water. Maybe I was over-watering them in previous years. The cucumbers I planted in the vegetable garden dwindled and died, with just one fruit produced on three plants. But the ones I’m growing in a pot on the deck are flourishing. Their many flowers are getting lots of attention from bees.

    Some of my container plants seem to have given up on flowering, perhaps because of the heat. A few are happy with the hot dry conditions: cannas, elephant ears, and wax begonias. My best container plant this year was a serendipitous choice. I grabbed some celosias in June from the last annuals left at the garden center. 

I’d heard that they attract beneficial insects. They’re blooming like crazy, while nearby dahlias flop over and barely produce.

    Live and learn. If there’s any silver lining to the rainless clouds, it’s the chance to observe what’s thriving in this drought. Someday maybe I’ll tear up the garden to create planting zones based on water needs. In the meantime, this year’s winners will get more garden space next year.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Growing together

Between shy plants that dwindle away after a few seasons and thugs that try to take over the garden, there’s a sweet spot. There are a few plants that have formed colonies in my garden while still coexisting peacefully with their neighbors. I notice some of these close to the house, in my oldest planting area.

    I planted European ginger (Asarum europaeum) at least twenty-five years ago, drawn to its shade tolerance and shiny round leaves. 

European ginger is finally filling in and spreading

It took ten years to establish fully, and now it’s actually spreading and appearing in placed where I never planted it. It’s a treat to find a clump of European ginger growing among daylilies along the driveway or under the shade of the crabapple.

    I struggled to grow bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) at first. I was attracted to the white flowers this native sends up in early spring and then captivated by its gray-green leaves with their irregular indentations. 

Bloodroot is one of the first to flower in April

For a few years none of the rhizomes I planted survived. Now there’s an expanding patch of bloodroot in front of the crabapple, and it’s showing up a few feet away under the taller bleeding heart.

    Bigroot geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum) is a bit more assertive. I must have planted some by mistake mixed with other cranesbills whose flower colors appealed to me. The more glamourous cultivars faded away, and this native species slowly spread to fill an area of around 3 by 8 feet in front of the garage. The magenta flowers are fleeting and, to me, the least interesting thing about this plant. It greets me at the gate with the distinctive spicy scent of its deeply lobed leaves.

Bigroot geranium toughs it out in a dry, sunny spot

    Meadow rue (Thalictrum rochebrunianum), another native, has very slowly spread to form a group under the big red oak. A related species is named “aquiliegiifolium” for its leaves’ resemblance to columbine’s. Mine too has blue-green round columbine-like leaves. Unlike the columbine foliage in my yard, though, its leaves stay fresh through the season and don’t succumb to leafminers. The sprays of tiny lavender flowers last for several weeks in midsummer. 

Meadow rue flowers attract bees

These plants fill a difficult niche at the base of the tree where the soil is often dry. Gradually new plants have taken hold farther out from the trunk. Although they’re 5 feet tall, they’re so delicate that they don’t hide the peonies and shrubs behind them.

    Thanks to some combination of light, soil conditions, available moisture, and their plant surroundings, these plants have expanded their numbers and formed stable colonies. With these groupings, I’m crossing over from planting where I think plants should go to letting them choose their own places. They look great in the spots they’ve found for themselves.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Getting a grip

As my garden fills up, there’s still room to squeeze in some vines. Last week I planted a new native honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens ‘Major Wheeler’) along the side of the house. 

This is how I hope 'Major Wheeler' will look

This honeysuckle will need better supports than the horizontal wires I put up for its predecessor, a variegated kiwi vine that succumbed to scale. Its cousin around the corner weaves in and out of a metal trellis.

Modest trellis is enough because lack of root space keeps this honeysuckle small

    When I choose vines, I have to be conscious of how they climb. A guest recently asked whether the climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris) wasn’t going to kill the red oak it has impressively enrobed. 

Climbing hydrangea surrounds the red oak's trunk

The answer is no, because this vine clings to the tree’s bark harmlessly with aerial rootlets. It doesn’t cut off the flow of nutrients up the trunk the way twiners like invasive Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) can do. The bittersweet kills trees and shrubs both by girdling their trunks and by smothering them with heavy vegetation that deprives them of sunlight and water.
Oriental bittersweet smothering trees

    I can guide clematis vines to use shrubs and trees as supports because they too hold on without causing damage. I find their method rather adorable. The petioles (leaf stems) curl around twigs or thin trellis wires. They can easily be unwound if you want the vine to go in a different direction. Their modest foliage will not shade out the host shrub.

I string wires along lattice for clematis to hold onto

    Some of my other vines count on me to attach them to their supports. I read that trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) has aerial roots, but in my garden for a number of years it’s just sent up long stems that I can weave into the porch railings. If I don’t, it flops over, but that doesn’t stop its vigorous growth. I cut it down to the ground three years ago when we were revising and painting the porch. The next year it was back sprouting from the base, and this year despite the drought it’s putting on substantial growth.

The trumpet vine is held back too by a tough growing environment

    My climbing rose ‘New Dawn’ is one that true rosarians eye askance, perhaps for the very reason I like it—it’s a strong grower that’s hard to kill. For years we enjoyed its blush pink flowers in May and June. 

'New Dawn'--it works for me

Like all climbing roses, it sends up long canes that lean against the trellis. They may weave in and out for support, but they don’t cling on with tendrils or rootlets. The rose was cut down for painting too. It was starting to come back until this year’s drought turned its leaves brown. I hope it will revive next year.

    On the deck I’m enjoying the tendrils of cucumber vines. These are so agile that they almost seem to be reaching out and curling in front of my eyes. They’re ready to grasp any support they can find, including stems from their own parent plant. Even if we don’t get fruit, these cucumbers are worth growing just to see the tendrils twine.

Cucumber tendrils grab each other