More Container Ideas

Photo of summer flowers in pots

 

The patio planter on the right was eaten twice by deer, but it’s back to beauty again. It has curcuma coming up as well (the strap-leaved plant at the center). I’ve never tried curcuma before, so I thought mine were duds, but it turns out they’re just late starters.

The deer seem to have learned the trick that after heavy rains, plants that tasted bad are good again. If the storms time themselves so that I can’t spray repellent, arriving nighttimes instead of days, I find a lot of browsing among my vulnerable things. The gladiolus flowers were almost all eaten, and deer seem eager to consume Autumn Joy sedum to the ground, despite both being named in catalogues as deer resistant.

Still, I’ve expanded the garden, so I don’t have a good measure of whether the deer are worse, since I have dozens of new things for them to eat. But also, it was a hard year for wildlife, with the oaks not producing acorns, and the maple trees losing their flowers to the late freeze. I was pleased, not to have to dig 10,000 sprouting maples from my flower beds, but it was a loss to the squirrels and deer. (Thanks to birds of prey, I don’t have much trouble with rabbits or groundhogs.)

 

 

Photo of carex in hanging baskets

 

Hanging baskets probably will need refreshing in midsummer. These two I have marking the opening of a path, had a good run with verbena, but the verbena was looking crispy… When I tipped it out, the roots were completely dry, regular waterings hadn’t been enough. I replanted the verbena along the path in semi-shade, and they’re reviving nicely. I found these carex, decided to try them as hanging basket plants, and the effect is good, with the thin, floaty leaves.

 

 

 

Here’s another case where a single plant in a container can be all that’s needed. These are late blooming alliums (flanking a black-eyed susan and some white pentas). And the deer will truly leave onion-family plants alone.

 

 

 

Putting a combo of plants with red/purple leaves in a pot makes another nice effect. Above are tradescantia, sweet potato vine, and purple velvet vine.

 

 

Last for this week, one of my backyard beds, with black-eyed susan and coneflower, always great together and loved by pollinators, some white agastache, easy to get from seeds, some crimson dahlias, and bright red-orange marigolds. The marigolds, and tithonia that haven’t started blooming yet, but are mixed in here, were direct-sown from seeds collected last year. One of the irises, that I said last week I was going to move, is visible at the left corner. This intensely sunny spot should make them happiest. 

 

Shady Places and Nice Surprises

 

Above, two shots of a pair of monarch caterpillars, eating one of my butterfly weeds.

I have a type that came on the wind, that I think is swamp milkweed. I’ve written about how it grows into a hedge along the garage in summer, and dies back in winter, and how popular it is with pollinators. The milkweed has been losing ground, though, for the past two years. I don’t know if a stand of goldenrod that’s taking over is killing it off, or if the hornbeam tree, rooting outwards, is the cause. Most of the milkweeds are stunted and yellowing. I’ve never seen a monarch among them.

Meanwhile, I always plant butterfly weed, and grow new ones from seed I collect. I came across these caterpillars one morning, and the next day, a single one was left. After that, they were both gone. But I don’t think they’ve been harmed. They are pretty toxic when grown to this size. I think they were both at the point of making their chrysalis, and dropped off into the shadier foliage to attach themselves. 

 

Front and center is a bargain I found, on a front door display at our local Menard’s. These pots and their contents were priced at five dollars each. (I should have got more.) I thought the decorative pot was enough of a bargain for that price, and I chose one with fairly healthy plants—while they were all on sale for being tired and dried up.

Petunias and geraniums are rated for full sun. But if I’d brought home a tired group of plants and put them out in the sun, they would die. My pot has revived into a great display because I have it in shade. That’s a good tip when you get the cheapest, last ditch plants, and want to save them for the fun of trying. If you place them in shade, regardless of what they are, they may perk up fine in a few weeks. 

 

The edge of my driveway border. I’ve been expanding it out this year with shrubs. This area is under a maple and looks like heavy shade, but the corner gets sun in the mornings, and parts of the border get sun all day. Another factor is the right angle of the driveway and street that frame this area. The pavements reflect light, so nothing is severely shaded. I put in a pair of spirea, and as you can see, top right and bottom center, they’re adding lots of new growth. That’s what I want them to do, reach towards each other, and fill in the space. I’m going to add two Encore azaleas, and a bird’s nest blue spruce. My goal is to plant over my steep little bank, so I don’t have to mow there. I’m also planning to move those iris, that have never bloomed, and are so thickety they block other perennials.

Thanks to shade, and the microclimate effect of the stick fence, seen in the background, I have pansies still blooming in late July. And they’re in the same bed as a dahlia that wintered over from last year. 

Finally, my other surprise. After our late freeze this year, my pawpaw sapling never leafed out. Once it got to be July, I gave up on it, figuring it was dead. But a rabbit came along and bit off the stem (at least the 45 degree cut implies a rabbit). Afterwards, new growth shot up, all you can see above in just a couple of weeks. The multi-stems mean the pawpaw will be more a shrub than a tree, and in the lower right corner, you can see an extra sprout well away from the base of the original tree, beginning a grove. 

My guess is that the stem had some tissue still sending signals to the roots that it was alive, and only when the rabbit severed that, did the tree decide it needed to grow back from the base. But if you have a seemingly winter-killed shrub or tree, you might try cutting off the dead top. 

 

Mini Post: Just a Couple of sights

 

My cactus, that I’ve had for fifteen years or so. It has suffered a few indignities: being pinched in a too-small pot, being chewed by squirrels, having its needles bitten off by chipmunks. This year the cactus is making only one flower (last year, two), but—a complete surprise—it has started a tiny arm. I thought all along it was a barrel-type cactus, but it may be more akin to a saguaro.

 

A venus flytrap I bought at Walmart, just to add another item to my pitcher plant tub. But it stuck up a flower head, and this is what the flower looks like.

Midsummer Pots

 

This beauty is a leek. Mine, that I planted last year and left to bloom this year, are in flower now, in July. The biggest is at least three, maybe approaching four, inches across. They have a pristine white quality in the sunlight, as the photo shows. I can’t give much advice for leek flower cultivation, since I don’t know that it’s especially done… I found out through neglect several years ago how great they are, and never tried it again until last year. But plant enough to enjoy for both recipes and pollinators (these flowers attract bees hugely), and in a spot where the leeks can winter over, with protection from cold, but not too damp.

 

 

 

It’s the time of the season to trim down overgrown pot flowers, and space things out for better air circulation. I had a few getting too little water, and a few getting too much. All the trimmings from things that root easily, like impatiens and coleus, become filler plants for shade gaps, where bulb foliage has died back.

 

 

 

Pots added to a flower bed work well, for the color and interest they provide in themselves, also because they lift the level of what’s growing in them to that of the surrounding plants. If a gappy area develops in a bed, you can thicken up its appearance with a few containers.

 

 

 

Here, again, I added pots where the daffodil foliage has finally died back. It won’t make sense to plant perennials in those spots, because the daffodils will smother out their new growth next spring. (This is the bed where I have the venerable daffodils that don’t bloom, and can’t be dug up because they’ve got themselves more than a foot deep, and I’d have to ruin the bed to exhume them. So I work around…)

 

 

 

This was a lucky outcome. For more than a year this oak branch was hanging on by an inch or so of wood, and I had to move around cautiously underneath. Every gusty thunderstorm, I hoped it would go ahead and fall. I’d judged it would land right on the path and not crush my plants.

So it came down, at last, just where it looked like it would. All I had to do was clear off the broken pieces.

 

 

 

When I took this picture, I had maybe nine corn stalks on the way. Now I have five. I thought I had them well baffled in, but I looked out the window and a squirrel was uprooting them and eating the root bulb. I’ve got even more baffling around the remainder, and if I can save them from the wildlife, I may have enough plants to pollinate one another, and get an ear of sweet corn or two.

 

 

Foliage Combos

 

Under one of the oak trees I have this colorful arrangement, with New Guinea impatiens, wax begonia, strobilanthes, hypoestes, hosta, heuchera, and astilbe. I’ve been having difficulties with a mother deer, who recently defoliated some heuchera and hosta, pulled off my new apple trees’ new leaves, and also took things I didn’t spray, like coneflower buds, rudbeckia, and sumac.

This story offers a good point about life cycles in nature. While she’s nursing, while her baby is too young to forage, the mother deer eats things she doesn’t like, because she needs the energy. She will do less damage when the baby is (by now it should be) able to forage for itself. The netting above is pretty effective…she can’t see it at night, and it moves, so if she noses into it, it noses back, and discourages her.

Another life cycle issue has been spider mites, eating my foxgloves pretty badly. The ladybugs got a late start because of unusual cold weather in March. Through April we had a pattern of that weather, freezing midweek, warming up, etc., until the midweek dips turned mild, and gave way to a summery pattern. Now the foxgloves leaves in their second flush are not being bothered, thanks to the ladybug larvae.

When we seek to garden harmlessly, we benefit by understanding how damage from pests waxes and wanes, that it isn’t all one thing. Deer are worse when raising young, insects worse when their populations peak (think of late summer cicadas) and many will go away with or without predators.

 

 

 

A mix of foliage plants and houseplants. I’ve seen houseplants used as summer garden plants, but I wasn’t planning to try it this year. I got started because I bought the cordyline at the upper right, thinking it was a canna. It has broad red/green leaves, while the only cordylines I knew of looked like ornamental grasses.

Since I couldn’t use this in my bog tub, I decided to use it in the bed…and then (plant shopping excuse) I needed some complimentary exotics, so I added a Boston fern, rex begonias, a philodendron, and a money plant (pilea).

 

 

 

An earlier view, with daffodil foliage still out, and some of the painted stick frame I’m growing Cobaea on.

 

 

 

This is what I had in mind. I only found cannas in pots at our local Tractor Supply store. If you can get them this way, you can put the pot directly in your tub or pond. If all you can get are tubers, you’ll have to get them well started before putting them in water. 

 

 

 

Last year, I mentioned the trouble with lonely alliums. This year, by serendipity, not plan, I discovered that this Globemaster type of allium blooms in sync with Dutch Iris. So that’s one answer.

 

 

 

I found this great speckled aqua, midcentury modern-style pot at Walmart. I’m using it here in a collection of containers I put together to let a pair of ferns get some growth on. Being near the bird feeders, they were bothered a lot by passing deer. The pots surrounding them give them protection. (And the “thriller” of this grouping is another of the cordylines.)

 

 

 

Expanding beds, reducing lawn

 

Often, I find something unfamiliar sprouting in my garden. I know a lot of weeds/undesirables from experience, but when I can’t tell a plant, images online can be discouragingly useless. Wildflowers are shown in closeups of the flower itself, with none of what’s needed—a clear look at the leaf type, the size of the plant relative to others, changes from immaturity to maturity. A good database of newly sprouted weeds doesn’t seem to exist.

So I’ll help where I can, with photos and labeling, as above.

Virginia Creeper and wild grapevine are both natives, hosts for insect larvae, and beneficial at forest margins. In a flowerbed, they’re problematic. Both also root tight, hard to pull if you don’t catch them in time. As to pokeweed, the first leaves look a lot like a tomato or pepper, so you may be hoping for a volunteer. You can tell poke because it’s a little waxy and has a purple-red stem. Pokeweed, at the edge of a property large enough for a wild spot, is fodder for deer, and draws them off your good stuff. But you’ll want to rogue it out quickly from the flower and vegetable patches. 

 

 

Now, some information about my stick borders.

Above, is an edge at stage one, where branches and sticks I gather from my yard are defining the bed, and providing shelter. This dahlia survived from last summer, even despite this year’s late cold snap. Decomposing wood generates some heat in its own right, and keeps soil from freezing, which keeps biological activity going, which makes food for soil organisms, which release nutrients for plants, etc. 

 

 

At stage two, I start filling in with clippings from the lawn, and leaf mold, which can sink and settle for a year.

 

 

Stage three, I add soil. The effect is of a raised bed, while also this new planting space, encroaching outwards, replaces its foot or two of lawn, and makes an organic (in the artistic sense) undulation to the overall design of garden beds. The paths, when the whole thing is reduced to only beds and paths, will curve and snake, adding that sense of discovery as you walk through the garden.

 

 

Fourth stage, larger perennials well-rooted. When you first plant, everything needs watering frequently, because the hump drains more freely than flat ground, and the roots aren’t established. In time, these plants should be especially trenched in and able to withstand dry spells.

Invasives

 

The blue circle surrounds one of the worst invasive plants in North America, Celastrus orbiculatus, commonly called Asian or Oriental Bittersweet. It can destroy the crucial habitat zone at the edge of woodlands, where native shrubs and wildflowers typically gain a toehold outside the shade of the deep woods, and where many species of animals live dependent on this mini-environment. Bittersweet grows rapidly, girdling trees as it climbs, often killing them. Its roots outcompete everything nearby, and its shade prevents seeds of other plants from sprouting.

The berries are eaten and spread by animals, and by humans attracted to their crafting potential. Since crafters are nice people, we can fairly assume they only perpetuate this vine from a lack of knowledge. Wherever you see Invasive Bittersweet, remove it.

I have another patch under my hornbeam, that I’m wearing down with constant clipping, but it still tries to sprout. As will often be the case, this one’s roots are too deep and extensive to dig up. The technique for that is monitoring, and starving the vine by removing all green parts. 

The lime circle shows my garden’s worst weed, Wintercreeper Euonymus (Euonymus fortunei). This too makes berries attractive to birds, threads itself all over the place, and sprouts like crazy in the flower beds.

The yellow circle shows a Callery pear. Even with the parent cut down, I will have to get rid of these for a long time. And for proof of how active birds are in delivering seeds, in this same little spot under the oak (no more than a foot in diameter), you can see American Holly, poison ivy, wild grapevine, and Virginia Creeper.

 

If you’re digging volunteer plants from your beds or lawn, and they come up in company with grasses and weeds, here’s a tip. Fill a shallow container with water, and soak the roots until you can tease out just the ones you want. This also helps with badly potbound plants from the nursery.

Unfortunately, that nice-looking erigeron (center left) got dug up by a critter after I planted it, and I didn’t see in time to keep the roots from drying out. Raccoons this time of year are the culprits for many gardeners. They are looking for beetle grubs, to snack on them before they turn into less tasty adults.

A design tip… (A neighborhood cat snuck herself into this photo.) When you’d like a rock feature, but can’t lift and place anything large and heavy, buy some concrete flagstone pavers, at Lowe’s (where I bought these), or any garden center that carries them. Then stack them in an irregular pillar, and top with garden art or a birdbath. 

You might not believe it, but these are hostas. This tiny variety is called Munchkin Fire. The dark heuchera is one I grew from seed, and the chartreuse and burgundy heucherella is named Solar Eclipse.

Finally, here’s a simple and great combo for small hanging baskets like this pair. The golden flower is a Supertunia called “Honey”, that starts chartreuse, as you can see upper right, and matures yellow-gold. The other plant is a tomato-red, black-leaved wax begonia—and if you’ve been a big spender this season, these are very inexpensive. 

Weather, and a Disappointed Woodpecker

 

Through April our weather came in a pattern, of warm, bright days early on, then midweek below freezing. I still planted out my perennials, which can take temperatures in the 20s, but had to keep trucking the annuals, and a new hydrangea, out and back inside the garage. (Hydrangeas are basically hardy, but their big leaves can’t take frost.)

Below is a picture of some interesting light, shining under a block of cloud, very dark.

All during earliest spring, a red-bellied woodpecker was making a nest hole. I saw him on the trunk of my sugar maple drilling away. And cleverly, he had chosen a spot just under a shelf mushroom, so the opening was almost impossible to see. But somehow after all his labor a pair of starlings moved in. The woodpecker has been going up and down and calling—I don’t know if he’s harassing them to get his own back.

What do we do about starlings? Nothing. I mentioned in another post that starlings are the best natural answer to Japanese beetles; they love to eat the grubs out of the lawn, and will also eat the adults, so on the whole it’s good to have them. Not every invasive species helps eradicate another one. The trouble, for the woodpeckers, is shrinkage of habitat. We would do better these days to stop thinking of habitat as “out there”, and recognize that a lot of what is left for plants and animals to exist in, constitutes human habitat. Humans dominate three types of environment: urban, suburban, and rural. Species that are well adapted to live in human habitats outcompete wild ones that live among us for lack of choice.

Common woodpeckers have made inroads in our world, but they need “snags”, dead boles of trees, to craft their holes. Most human spaces don’t preserve dead trees, because of the hazard of falling limbs. Woodpeckers among us have to compete with starlings, but even in the wild they can’t always avoid their nests being stolen, by squirrels, among others.

In short, more woodlands, and more connected woodlands, should be our goal, rather than motion sensors, firecrackers, and other ideas people have had for scaring off starlings.

 

 

Here’s the way I’ve got the dripline area under the roof at the back of my house improved. Pea gravel is pretty cheap, and looks good for pathmaking. Year to year, you will have to top it up, but in a sheltered, compacted area like this it lasts longer. Worms have a lot to do with the sinking into earth of gravel. The blocks against the garage wall are for cactus and agave.

 

The stick fence defines this bed and makes a little habitat for garter snakes, salamanders, moles. I haven’t seen any garter snakes, but I hope I have one or two! This is a shade-to-sun bed, where I have heuchera at the edges, moving into some lupine and the only delphinium I have that came up from the seed I planted. And you can see the lilies with some deer baffling to keep them uneaten.

 

Bug Troubles

 

Stands of daffodils shining here and there in the garden are great to see when everything is still wintry. My plan to keep them to the margins and path edges, so I don’t have to worry about the foliage being in the way before it goes dormant, looks to be working well. Next time I order bulbs, I’ll get more of the jumbo King Alfreds, probably my favorites, but also more late-blooming varieties and white/pinks, and plant them in concentric semicircles, going out into the lawn.

The second photo shows my plants before the weird troubles. The third photo shows the growths, something between a gall and an excretion, that I believe are caused by mites on my impatiens. If I pick the little beads off, I find they’re made of sticky sap.

But this is a good lesson. My plant room, full of such pretty things a while back, now has several sad specimens, missing their leaves, or with leaves that look burnt at the edges. Because I discovered these bugs, I assumed the leaf damage was fungus. It’s not unusual for mites and other sucking insects to spread disease. I did some research, though…

In gardening and in other areas of life, it’s worth being on the lookout for converging events, and not drawing the conclusion that if one problem precedes another, the two are related and not coincidental.

Anyway, my plants seem to have suffered from overwatering and possibly overfertilizing. This year I skipped peat pellets and tried potting mix. The peat pellets have their imperfections, but they were good for germination, and naturally wilt-resistant. Because this year I started mostly native wildflowers, which are perennials as well (where I usually sow garden annuals) I don’t have much basis for comparison. It does seem I got less germination and have had issues with sogginess.

The potting mixes have water-retentive additives, and NPK (nitrogen, potassium, phosphorous) additives, so in fact I might have harmed the seedlings both by watering too often and repotting too soon. I should have waited a few weeks, too, starting them. It was hard to judge without prior experience with these particular plants (and I was eager to get going), but the longer seedlings live in the windless indoor environment, the more opportunity for bugs and diseases.

The news isn’t too bad. I have six flats of strong perennials, almost all natives. My beleaguered seedlings are making a comeback, and quite a few were never badly affected. But this year’s seed-starting adventures have been a little different!