Drainage Project

This is the slope from my patio, past the bird feeders, and coming down to the garage door. It’s steepish, and the area has a washing problem due to compacted soil, and nothing growing there. That’s because birds, lightweight as they are, are milling constantly after seed. And squirrels run up and down here all day; deer come to forage at night.

I’ve put in this little wall of concrete cobblestones (with gaps to shelter toads and salamanders), which is making the dirt behind it level off, while the angle at the patio edge gets sharper. That’s a miniature version of the same erosion patterns that eventually form waterfalls. The water rushes over the edge, but is slowed as it spreads across the “flatlands”. Erosion is concentrated at the higher elevation, in effect the rock shelf, because there’s a boundary being created by the two rates of flow.

But slowing the flow is what’s wanted, to control drainage, to keep dirt from being carried into the storm sewers, and to keep the garden from losing its topsoil and mulch. The next step is to dig out a space for steppingstones, down from the patio, and to plant some good anchoring plants, limiting the creature traffic to the center. Then I’ll fill that part in with pea gravel to filter the water downwards.

 

 

The next phase. Black hardwood mulch is the only kind I was able to buy. Gardening supplies are off this year, presumably affected by the pandemic. The black mulch looks good, but it will decompose faster than pine nuggets. In the way of things, I bought less pea gravel than I need, so that will take more filling in. 

 

 

Mostly done. At the upper level is a strobilanthes plant, two Blue Rug junipers, two Japanese painted ferns, and one heuchera whose roots were all in among one of the ferns, so I had to dig them both. The lower level has four divisions of a fern I lifted from another of my beds. I bought the junipers and the strobilanthes, and shopped my garden for the rest.

 

 

Sometimes your garden gives you bouquets. This pretty combo made itself: yellow feverfew and centaurea, white with a pink center.

 

One of the super-dark burgundy scabiosas, a budded flower getting ready to open.

 

 

These bright yellow mushrooms popped up in several places. Of ones in my guidebook, they most resemble chanterelles. 

 

 

Along the Pathway

This Is my backyard border, a little collapsed at the center where daffodil leaves used to be, keeping me from planting densely there in the spring. The bamboo stakes are deer-discouragers. The mulched path on the right, I filled in with free wood chips and twigs that form naturally at the bottom of my brush heap. Windfalls from my trees are the edging. Mature logs taken from the heap can be light as paper, reduced to a crumbly texture by the fungi that feed on them. As edging, logs and sticks look nice; they also create microclimates and mini-habitats. So far, I have never seen a reptile or amphibian in my yard, but I’ve added water, stones, and rotting wood, all of which are are important to toads and turtles, etc.

Stands of mint-family plants can make great summer hedges. They tend to grow in a medium-tall upright clump; they flower generously, and are loved by pollinators. The lemon balm pictured defines the path edge, and is easily trimmed backed if it encroaches.

The Alaska nasturtiums blooming, with all their color range. 

This annual phlox is not only lovely, but seems strongly deer resistant. In this patch of garden, I have coneflower and black-eyed Susan, of which the deer have bitten off the flowerheads. But the phlox blooming next to them has been left alone.

An achillea bloom in terra cotta. Also, a tiny wasp, and several of what look like little beetles.

A second Paw Paw seedling. The first gift Paw Paw is about three feet tall now. I read up on them to learn when I might see it bloom, and found out it’s just as well I have another. Paw Paws, apparently, besides being fly-pollinated, are shy to make fruit, and need to have genetic input from another individual. Somewhere in the woods nearby, though, there is a fruiting Paw Paw, making these deposits in my yard possible.

Likewise for the parent mountain laurel. I found a new one, potted it up, and will think about where to plant it. I just ordered a buttonbush, and a steeplebush, and I want to put in a highbush cranberry. The Black Cherry is a superfood for native northeastern and midwestern wildlife, and I always get seedlings sprouting in my yard, since they are not rare in southeastern Ohio. But whole trees are hard to accommodate. 

This one, that I thought was a birch, and then thought was a beech, I’m beginning to think is a hornbeam. Its characteristics don’t really fit either of the others. It’s a great favorite with everything that feeds on leaves. The skeletonization is caused by Japanese beetles. The larvae of Japanese beetles thrive in sunny expanses of lawn, while their best predator, fellow foreigner the European Starling, like most warm-blooded creatures, likes to forage (grub) in the shade. Starlings have done good work for me in keeping this particular pest under control, so I don’t worry about them…even though they are awfully noisy birds. 

Joe Pye weed is a North American native, and its flowers are loved by butterflies. This leaf damage is a good sign that some insects, aside from Japanese beetles, are being fed. The Joe Pye is not a noted host for butterfly larvae, but feeds the adults and attracts them, so that if you have Paw Paw, a host for the Zebra swallowtail, or milkweed, for Monarchs, or pipevines, which have a swallowtail of their own, etc., your yard can help keep butterflies from disappearing—a genuine possibility these days.

By the way, I’ve walked in the woods many times in my life, and I’ve never actually seen a pipevine growing anywhere. The only one I could find to order was a Brazilian species. Of volunteer vines, I get Chinese bittersweet and Japanese honeysuckle, invasives that need pulling (the bittersweet has thorns, so wear gloves). I get poison ivy, which isn’t civilized, though in the forest it’s good for wildlife. I get lots of Virginia Creeper, which is just too abundant to have in the yard (and capable of damaging masonry), English ivy and wintergreen euonymus, nonnatives, also worth pulling, and lots of campsis radicans, the trumpet vine, which is native, and hosts a sphinx moth caterpillar.

Campsis is also tricky, like other vines, because it grows heavy and woody in time, and crawls all over things, shading them out. It probably wants a pergola, and I don’t have enough sunny parts in my yard for that.

A robber fly. I didn’t even know there were such things, but I photographed this one and looked up types of flies. It’s not really a friend or an enemy, because it’s a hunting insect that carries off grasshoppers and bumblebees alike. I just saw the first hummingbird moth I’ve ever seen in my yard, so I hope it can keep safe from the robber flies. 

 

 

A cute-as-can-be little spider on my Brandywine tomato. It looks like he’s trying to pass himself off as a tiny tomato hornworm. Maybe this spider preys on the braconid wasps that prey on the hornworm.

Old and New Ways of Gardening for Nature

This year I’m getting a great display from this fancy daylily, the variety name of which I’ve never noted down. Now that I’m writing about the garden, I’ll have to be more meticulous in labeling, so I can share that information. 

I made this watering place with the first intention of keeping deer away from the bog tubs. I don’t mind if they drink out of them, but they do some clumsy damage wending through my container plantings, knocking pots over. What I have is a ceramic tub, with an upside-down 12-pk of planting cells, such as are used to start seeds, and then a concrete paver on top. One thing I hadn’t expected is that the concrete would saturate. Tiny insects have been landing on top of the paver and drinking from the surface. With an arrangement like this, mosquito larvae can be dumped and the tub refilled.

With the bog tubs, and their mini-ecosystems, I don’t do anything about mosquitoes. The tubs only support about two inches of water above the accumulated soil mass, and the sparrows pick the larvae out of the shallows to feed on. Birds we like, swifts, martins, our endangered migrants, orioles and warblers, etc., eat mosquitoes, either adults, larvae, or both, and depend on them to a degree.

Did you know that honeybees and wasps drink water? So do several other beneficials.

Now, going back to the 90s, when I started gardening, the organic world still touted pest control as an unquestionable thing. If you saw caterpillars, you wanted them gone—as you were taught. The magazines featured pests of the month and how to eradicate them; the catalogs that sold organic supplies offered poisons to kill insects, chemicals to destroy fungi…in those days, even glyphosate was sometimes recommended as a herbicide. Little rings containing Bt, bacillus thuringiensis, were and are sold to place in tubs and ponds. Bt is fatal to moth and butterfly larvae; there is not much evidence that it kills bees, though adults drinking water from Bt-containing ponds must be thought to carry it back to the hive. [From Bee Culture magazine, a good survey article on mosquito control and threats to bees.]

Aside from changes of water, duckweed is another poison-free method for controlling mosquitoes. If you wonder what’s wrong with duckweed, other than aesthetics (I think it looks fine, myself), it consumes oxygen at night, and can deplete a pond where fish are kept (but in rare circumstances). On the other hand, goldfish and koi will eat duckweed. If you have a large pond, an aerator will keep the surface too choppy for the mosquitoes to lay eggs, and aerators that run on solar are easy to find. 

And since we don’t know what’s drinking out of our water features, and we want to supply water to as many creatures as need it, no kill methods, leaving out even treatments said to be organic, are best.

A book I’m reading, and recommend, if you want to make your backyard a habitat. The author explains both why and how to design a native planting scheme, which you can adapt to your preferences and inherited plants. (I’ve written about my callery pear, its good, bad, and weird points. But it belongs to the yard, and the wildlife gets a lot of use out of it; the huge oaks, however, are the real anchors to my patch of the natural world.)

Tallamy’s contention is chiefly this: that each of us who has a piece of this land is already empowered to link it to a national habitat, each little patch doing its work to sustain what America no longer has the human-free areas to guarantee without our help.

 

 

 

 

Bargain Time

I have a Baptisia australis in my front border that has bloomed only once, and sparsely. It needs to come out, but not until fall, when I can dig without trampling good flowers. I also have some lilies in containers that are in their second year, and will have to be moved because they’ll have used up the fertility of the soil. So what do we do in June, when we anticipate gaps to be filled in October? Shop the sales!

Don’t get bargain fever, but snap up anything you know you’ll want. Above are two rudbeckias, a meadow sage, a foxglove, a papyrus, two balloon flowers, and a campanula, that in total I paid $37.98 for. The rudbeckias and foxglove (which appears to be three individuals in one pot, anyway) can be divided into threes, and the sage looks like it can make two. Wherever I choose to plant them for summer growth, I can later move any of them into the front border, or my larger containers. 

You’ve probably seen various techniques for dividing plants, but let me share the easiest. Get a bucket of water, unpot your perennial, and swirl it in the water until the roots are clear of soil. Cutting it apart with scissors can be done then with precision, and the roots are well conditioned to spread in their new location. 

 

This is always the fate of Hibiscus. It looks like there are enough good leaves for the plant to overcome being eaten and flower. Hibiscus are easy to grow from seed, so let the caterpillars thrive for the songbirds, and start some new ones when you need to.

 

A section of border flowers (and some of the deer netting, that needs tweaking up every day, so it doesn’t stop the blooms from opening). The yarrows are coming out naturally in this suite of pinks.

 

Fantastic nicotiana that can’t really be captured by the camera. It has this brick red on the outside, and purple on the inside, so that from the right angle the two colors together make a neon effect.

 

Petunias seem perfectly symmetrical, but they do have a right-side-up. At the base of the fused lower right petal is an extended marking to guide the bees.

 

Alaska nasturtiums doing what I want them to, spilling over the block edging, which looks very distant thanks to the camera’s forced perspective. 

 

A close view of a tiny wildflower, abundant in my lawn, Blue-eyed grass (a type of iris).

 

Wild garlic, one of the natural arrivals in my deer area. The new plants are all ready to go, as soon as the seedhead breaks up.

 

Mid-June Blooms

An annual I’m trying this year, Clarkia, related to fuchsias, that blooms in shades of pink. This variety I grew from seed is spacier in petal/sepal configuration than the cup-shaped flowers usually seen. The leaves and stems have a little of the succulent appearance of impatiens. 

 

The combinations above are really pretty in person, though the camera didn’t quite get the colors true. Feverfew’s ferny leaves and pale yellow buttons seem to accent any planting well, especially contrasting with magenta. And then the blue of ageratum—bluer than the photo suggests—is the perfect match to salmon pink.

 

A delicate Shirley poppy, with a small grasshopper sneaking into the picture.

 

A nice effect of petunias and geraniums. Petunias grow most happily in pots, because slugs love them so much,  petunias as bedding plants are likely to be tattered to death.

 

Coreopsis in its second year, after being started last year from seed. I’ve never had much luck with coreopsis, when I’ve bought it as a plant. It blooms the first year, but perennial label notwithstanding, it usually disappears by the next spring. So seed is probably the way to go.

 

A design tip from nature. This grass, that my cats like to eat when I walk them on their harness, has come up in a collar of violets. I can see possibilities: blue fescue surrounded by primroses, red pennisetum surrounded by forget-me-nots…

 

 

Bugs and Beauty

Above, a close shot of a goatsbeard flower. If you have one, it is either male or female, and so won’t reproduce by seed unless you have the right combination of two. That trait is called dioecious. Another member of the rose family, which goatsbeard belongs to, is the apple tree. Most varieties of apple need a mate to produce fruit. The goatsbeard is native to North America, and the flowers attract their own population of tiny insects, that I couldn’t quite bring out in this picture. Whatever they are, the ladybug larvae have been hunting them.

 

 

The strange red aphids above have been all over my heliopsis. As you can see, they attach themselves to the stems in a regimented way, and sort of float (on a too-tiny-to-see mouthpart, I presume). What I do about aphids, is let them be. I’ve seen yellowjackets, as well as ladybug larvae, eat them. These days, when all of nature is precious, our rule should be, Lose the Plant, Save the Planet. In fact, most afflicted plants won’t die from bugs or funguses…and if a plant can’t survive in your garden, you can find plenty of others that will.

A barn owl is said to catch as many as a thousand voles in the months raising its young. We love owls, and we don’t love voles, but it stands to reason the voles have to be there if the owls are going to thrive on them. Caterpillars that skeletonize leaves also feed migrating songbirds, and the moths caterpillars turn into feed bats. And that’s the natural order of things—prey comes before predators. When our yards can support wildlife, the creatures will arrive, but in the meantime we have to allow insects and rodents. 

Post-WWII, the suburban dream was a strange mishmash of perfect green lawn and tidy backyard vegetable plot. At the same time, suburbanites were encouraged to scorn rustic details like fences. If animals have only the choice between chemically treated grass, or flowers and tomatoes, of course they invade the garden. For decades the industry-touted solution was more chemicals, or other “kill” methods, that an organic gardener never needs to employ.

Another important rule is: Recruit Small, Fight Big. We don’t want to harangue fellow gardeners, who have at least one foot in the battle with us; we want to fight for laws to preserve and protect Planet Earth and commitment to their enforcement. 

 

 

Here are the irises I mentioned last week, dug, separated, trimmed, and replanted in a sunnier spot.

 

 

And here’s what’s taken their place. Raccoons have been nasty diggers this spring, so I’ve been buying bags of egg rocks (about five dollars each at Lowe’s), and strewing them in the vulnerable spots. Except for the primroses I divided and stuck in here and there, all I’ve put in are annuals, red impatiens and a lantana. That way I can decide if I want a different perennial in this bed next spring. 

I’ve seen, at least once, a garden writer tackle the theme of excess perfection in magazine and catalogue pictures. The above is a true-to-life view of new plantings in hot weather, a little sparse and a little droopy. But since mail order nurseries are using the pernicious star rating system these days, it’s worth thinking about unrealistic expectations, the way that a permissive environment for returning anything for any reason infantilizes consumers. Plants are alive, and under assault when we put them outdoors. Patience and resourcefulness help, also the constant acquiring of knowledge; also a philosophical view. We gain a lot from gardening—all the entertainment of setting a thing in motion and seeing how it plays out—but plant by plant, we don’t always win. Maybe it would be better to show the spots and yellowing, and aphids, and heat wilt, and deer chomping…

 

 

 

Little Garden Events

In this interesting May 2021, we’ve gone back from high summer heat to chill, just when my furnace is out. I’ve been putting up with bundling indoors, since the season’s wrong for having the repair done. If anything was wrong, I wouldn’t know until fall.

We had a good wind this week, and a number of my five-foot-tall foxgloves got bent over. The flowers are still opening, and the bees are still pollinating, so I don’t want these inside; also, of course, I don’t want my cats bothering them. The flowerheads are finishing their lifespans in this bucket of water, with the half-lid to keep creatures from trying to drink. The seeds should fall into the bed, so I can redistribute my new plants next spring.

 

 

This is a new one to me—not to many, I’m sure. It’s called Alternanthera, and I picked up a couple, since I always like groupings with different foliage colors. 

 

 

A stand of seriously crowded irises. No surprise they aren’t blooming. They need digging, dividing, and put in a new, sunnier location. Then I’ll have a gap in the bed to fill with something, a problem no gardener minds.

 

 

This is how I make a new bed. I pile lawn clippings from the mower bag, mixed right now with a lot of leaves. Then I let them form soil through the winter, and plant the following spring.

 

 

Two views, above, of the weirdest gall I’ve seen so far. Those are not drops of water, but blisters. The foamy stuff is not really foam, like a spittlebug makes, but in consistency like cooked egg white. And, as is obvious, the leaves are severely warped. I found it on the ground, and I tossed it behind the rhododendron after I’d taken its picture.

 

 

A composting tip: If you keep a kitchen bucket to toss scraps in while you prepare meals, keep a larger bucket in the garage, part-filled with water. Here, as shown, you should drop your used tissues and paper towels (no bacon fat), and small amounts of shredded paper from the junk mail. Add your veg scraps at the end of the week, and dump everything on the outdoor compost. (Adjust these instructions if you have only a patio or balcony and no garage.) Paper will transmute into garden feed easily, if it starts out soaked, while timely dumping means the bucket won’t smell. 

 

 

I found this expansive pat from some creature, and doubted it was a deer. In truth, I’ve seen this kind of thing before, but I’d never given consideration to bears. In Southeastern Ohio we can have black bears, but we typically don’t, at least not in numbers to be spotted by homeowners. The proof is inconclusive, but it makes me wonder. I’ve been experimenting with putting apple slices out for the deer, in hopes they’ll eat those and not my plants. Maybe not a good idea!

 

Effects

The coleus, in this bed where almost everything has variegated leaves, has the same red, yellow, and green as the heuchera (variety Electra, I think). Coleus are the easiest plants to start from seed, grow from cuttings, and store indoors through winter. So, for next to no money invested, you get the design impact of far more expensive plants.

 

 

The last issue of Garden Gate magazine talked about growing hydrangeas in pots. That seemed like a great answer to me, for this big pot that can accommodate a lot more root than a handful of annuals produces. First, note another good pairing with coleus, in this case almost an exact match in leaf shape and size, and burgundy to contrast with green. Second…I didn’t know when I planted the hydrangea that its flowers echoed the rhododendron’s in the background so well. But here are two shrubs that should mesh together nicely.

 

 

This year’s pots. The blue and purple ones are throwaway nursery pots, decorated with craft paint. It’s a way to keep plastic out of the environment, and I recommend painting pots as a waiting-for-warm-weather March or April hobby, and as a usual practice these days. Not just collecting pretty ceramic and terra cotta, but building your stock with repurposed plastic. Think…if as few as a hundred people did six pots each, that would be 600 pieces of plastic out of landfills, roadsides, waterways..

Meanwhile, the crate lined with paper is just a notion of mine. I’ll see how it works… And as to the annuals, the calibrachoa and petunia, I love pinwheel flowers, so these were great finds.

 

 

Meadow plantings are hot, but it’s worth noting that a meadow is a type of plant community created by human agricultural practices, from grazing livestock in fields, and from mowing. Meadows and their combination of grasses and flowers are easy to love, great for birds and insects, but there’s no set-it-and-forget-it aspect to maintaining one. You might like the effect on a small scale, making miniature meadow plantings among your beds. If so, mix in grasses, and in everything, look for sway…flowers with nodding heads that dance in the wind. Above, some grasses and foxglove, then a stand of catmint with daisies (the always good blue, white, and yellow combo); finally, some tall yellow columbines, with iris, monarda, and goldenrod.

 

 

The advice is always plant in threes. But I like the effect of one bright red flower in a bed of mostly pinks and purples. Primrose, as above, is good for spring, zinnia or dahlia for summer, and a peony or rose can stand out among shrubs.

 

 

 

 

Planting Out Week

Photo of backyard border bed

Last week, we were in the gloom; this week, serious spring has settled in, with temperatures forecast for the eighties in the coming week. Here is a view of the bed I showed a couple of posts back, when I talked about how many plants it takes to fill one. I now have it fully stocked with annuals: poppies, Centaurea, Scabiosa, sunflowers, Tithonias, ageratum, feverfew (a perennial). With luck, Clarkia and annual phlox, but I’m growing them for the first time, so I can’t be sure until they flower. Mostly choices that are deer resistant. (And one really lonely allium, that got included by mistake with the daffodils.)

 

Photo of vegetable bed protected from deer

This is the way I’m experimenting with protecting my vegetables. I’ve never been able to grow many edibles, because of the deer, but that’s been partly my not wanting to construct fencing. I may yet need to make metal grid fences, but what I have here is a double baffle, a kind of deer discourager that I’ve read about and that strikes me as logical. I have an inside section of netting, strung onto bamboo stakes, then an outside section of additional stakes. The concept is that the deer will try to push their noses in, find one baffle, the outer row of stakes; and if they try further, a second baffle, the inside netting, which confusion leaves them too uncertain of safety to venture more.

Double rows of fencing, spaced at four feet apart, are recommended for this method when you’re making the investment of a serious fence. 

 

Photo of wild aster foliage

Above, a pair of wild plants that turn up in the garden, and that have elegant, attractive foliage. The first is narrow-leaf plantain, which also will form a sort of ground cover, and has the little bullet flowerheads, that some of you, like I did in childhood, may have “shot” by wrapping the stem around itself and sliding the loop to detach the flower. The second is a late-summer aster. Some aster species have broader leaves, but this one, which will bloom with a tiny white flower, has grassy leaves that look pretty most of the season. Asters are pests as well as beneficial, seeding everywhere, but they bloom when pollinators need them, so are worth allowing (to a point).  

 

Photo of ground ivy in flower

Ground ivy has a certain charm when it’s in bloom, with its little bluish flowers dotting among the grasses. It was brought to North America by European immigrants, for its medicinal uses, to cure coughs and bronchitis, also arthritis and tinnitus, and a few other conditions. So while we wait for Universal Health Care 😉, try some ground ivy, free and abundant, and good for the insect population in any case. 

 

Photo of white foxglove

An almost perfect white foxglove. It barely even has spots, a claim the named white varieties don’t seem able to match. I’d have to propagate it by cuttings, since the seeds have probably been compromised already by the nearby pink foxglove.

 

Photo of clematis flower

Last year I treated my clematis with bonemeal, and this year it’s taken off, climbing the arbor for the first time. It’s an average jackmanii as far as I know, but the flowers are also coming larger and more burgundy than purple. (The camera gives a magenta appearance, but the true life shade is deeper.)

 

Photo of Japanese painted fern with green sport

One of my Japanese painted ferns, has sported (in horticulture, a sport is a stem or branch that features a different color or appearance from the main plant). Even though it’s a plain lime green, it makes a good-looking “second fern” in its own right.