The Monarch Diaries-Caterpillar (Part 2)

As the cats get older and plump, they become eating machines
As the cats get older and plump, they become eating machines

Larval Stage (Caterpillar)

Continued: The Monarch Diaries-Rearing Monarchs from Egg to Adult (Part 2)

Adding fresh Milkweed leaves to the container and cleaning up the gooey frass (poop) is a daily task that only takes a few minutes.

Lots of caterpillars munching away produces a lot of poop!
Lots of caterpillars munching away produces a lot of poop!

As the cats grow larger, shedding their skins, I transfer them to a slightly bigger container with fresh leaves. Clear salad mix receptacles that you buy at the grocery store make great containers at this stage.

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Baby cats-I cut up the milkweed leaves and place them in a plastic container lined with a paper towel and fresh leaves for them to eat

cats

Milkweed-Eat & Grow

When the cats reach about 3/4″ inch long, I put them in with the “big boys” in the tomato cage tower that is full of several types of freshly cut Milkweed branches stuck into water bottles. To keep my Milkweed from immediately wilting, I use a flower arrangers trick-flaming the cut ends so that the milky sap stops flowing. I use a small propane torch, like one that you would use for creme brulee. A match doesn’t cut it. It just isn’t hot enough to sear the ends to stop the sap which will make the branch wilt.

The Milkweed on the left has not been flamed
The Milkweed on the left has not been flamed
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Flame the ends of Milkweed with a propane torch to stop it wilting

All it takes to keep your cats happy and healthy is a good supply of milkweed, because that is all that they eat-nothing else! Eat and grow is the primary goal for the caterpillar. The Monarch butterflies nectar on many types of flowers, but the caterpillars eat only Milkweed. There are lots of kinds of Milkweed, but it must be Asclepias, which is the Latin name for Milkweed. Go to Milkweed Guide to see great pictures and descriptions if in doubt. Growing Milkweed around the country to fuel the Monarchs is really vital to the Monarch survival and people are starting to grow it everywhere. Check out Got Milk…….Weed to read some amazing facts about this essential ingredient to raising Monarchs.

Aphids are always on Milkweed leaves and are voracious and reproduce like crazy
Voracious Aphids are always on Milkweed leaves and reproduce like crazy

Milkweed is a source of food for many insects, most notably aphids and Milkweed bugs, which I wash off carefully before bringing inside. I don’t want anything else to be eating my collected Milkweed-just my caterpillars!

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Milkweed bugs covering Milkweed seed pods

Instars

Monarchs complete almost all of their growth during the larval stage which lasts from 9 to 14 days, during which time they undergo five larval instars or skin shedding. Before molting, the cat will become very still. If you catch this right after it happens, you can see the skin and then they eat it!

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This guy just molted and is getting ready to eat his skin

I try not to handle them at all, especially during this vulnerable stage as the larva spins a silk thread to keep attached to the leaf.  From hatching to pupation, monarchs increase their body mass about 2000 times!

By the time they are ready to pupate the caterpillars become these pudgy clown-like eating machines. So, move them to a large enough enclosure so that they can move to a flat surface, stick, or other hard surface to attach their chrysalis which is their last skin molting or instar. I place sticks in my cage to give the cats added surface area for the chrysalis.

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I added some sticks to the tower for additional areas to attach a chrysalis

 Making a Caterpillar Tower

Tomato cage enclosure
Tomato cage tower

As soon as I saw this ingenious enclosure at my workshop by The Monarch Teacher Network, made out of a tomato cage, black tulle, and clothes pins, I was hooked. Taking only a few minutes to slap together and tall enough for Milkweed plants, this was a great solution to keeping the cats contained while being able to observe them. Directions are below.

Directions for Monarch Tower

  • Buy a tomato cage with 4 rings. I used one that measured 14″ in diameter and 27″ from the first to the last ring in length. Cut half the length off of each protruding tine and bend the legs at the base inwards.
Start with a four ring metal tomato cage
Start with a four ring metal tomato cage, a 54″ square of tulle and some clothespins
  • Take your 54″ square piece of tulle and knot one end and pull that over top of your tomato cage.
Tulle pulled over the cage
Tulle pulled over the cage
  • Laying the cage on the side, clothes pin the tulle to the bottom ring of the cage pulling it taut. Using needle and thread, overcast stitch the tulle firmly to the bottom ring of the cage. Almost there!
    Using clothes pins to fasten the bottom of the tulle, use needle and thread to overcast stitch the tulle firmly to the bottom ring
    Using clothes pins to fasten the bottom of the tulle, use needle and thread to overcast stitch the tulle firmly to the bottom ring

     

    Overcast stitch the excess tulle to the bottom ring
    Overcast stitch the excess tulle to the bottom ring

     

  • Using 3 clothes pins, fasten the overlap area of the tulle on the side and place your cage on top of a pizza box base. If you aren’t a pizza lover, cut a piece of cardboard to fit the base.
    Use a cardboard base and set your Milkweed into a water bottle
    Use a cardboard base and set your Milkweed into a water bottle

     

  • Set up your cage on the base and it is ready to fill with your milkweed plant or cuttings. Tall enough for plants and lots of caterpillars, they will travel to the top when they are ready to pupate. This setup is easy to see through and clean, essential when you have lots of plump cats eating away.

    Change out your Milkweed when the caterpillars eat most of it
    Change out your Milkweed when the caterpillars eat most of it

Disease

I had a few cats die after turning black caused by a bacterial disease. This is upsetting but part of  life. I removed these as soon as I spotted them to stop any spread of infection to others. Be sure to clean and rinse your milkweed before using and clean your cage thoroughly every day to increase your caterpillar survival rates. If you notice a caterpillar looking sick, remove it from the others immediately. Once your caterpillar gets sick, there is really nothing that can be done. You can euthanize by placing in a ziploc into the freezer. For more information on caterpillar diseases, go to 7 Common Monarch Diseases.

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Blackened caterpillar from disease

 Next Up: The Final Journey to An Adult Monarch Butterfly

The Monarch Diaries-Rearing Monarchs Egg to Adult (Part 1)

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Monarch on Mexican Sunflower

Incredible Journey

Monarchs always amazed me with their unique migration, over 3000 miles in some cases, which seems an impossible task for such a delicate creature. The only butterfly that makes a two-way trip, Monarchs are unique in the animal kingdom. Unable to survive cold winter temperatures, the Monarch has evolved to make this incredible trek to over-winter in warmer climes, such as Mexico and southern California. Using a combination of thermals and air currents, Monarchs sense when it is time to travel and know where to go even though the migrating generation has never been to the distant over-wintering sites.

Primary Monarch overwintering sites
Primary Monarch overwintering sites
fallmigrationmap
Map from USDA Forest Service

Monarchs travel along one of three major routes and investigators think that a combination of directional aids such as the magnetic pull of the earth and the position of the sun among others guide them. Monarchs can travel between 50-100 miles a day and it can take up to two months to complete their journey. Traveling only by day, Monarchs roost at night high up in trees to rest before warming up in the sun to continue their journey. A distance of 265 miles in one day is the longest recorded distance of a Monarch! A great website to track the migratory happenings of Monarchs and other animals is Journey North. Citizen Scientists record their observations all over North America to show the movements of animals north in the spring and south in the fall in real-time.

cater55

Many teachers include Monarch rearing in their science curriculum in Elementary school but I missed the opportunity in school and wanted to do it myself at home to observe the incredible transformation that these creatures go through. How can such fragile creatures make a 3,000 mile journey to an unknown location and remain there for months, mate and then return to the north to start new progeny?

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Several chrysalises hanging in an enclosure at my house

MonarchTeacherNetwork 

Monarch rearing has been on my “must try” list for several years and a two-day Monarch workshop put on by MonarchTeacherNetwork got me motivated and ready to go. Milkweed growing, enclosure instructions, Monarch activities and games, healthy practices of raising, and release ceremonies were all covered in simple, easy to follow directions with added field trips to meadows full of Milkweed and a butterfly house. After the intense two-day workshop, I felt fully prepared to set up my own Monarch raising operation at home.

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Demonstrating milkweed in water tubes to keep it fresh at Ladew Topiary Gardens with MonarchTeacherNetwork
Showing us how to feed Monarchs JuicyJuice
Showing us how to feed Monarchs JuicyJuice
Different types of Milkweed laden with Monarch eggs were scattered around the room
Different types of Milkweed laden with Monarch eggs were scattered around the room
We each made our own Monarch cage out of tomato cages and tulle
We each made our own Monarch cage out of tomato cages and tulle
We learned how to make a Monarch enclosure for adult Monarchs also
We learned how to make a Monarch enclosure for adult Monarchs out of 2 embroidery hoops, clothespins, and tulle
Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar-We toured the butterfly house at Ladew Topiary Gardens to see other larval stages of butteerflies
Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar-We toured the butterfly house at Ladew Topiary Gardens to see other larval stages of butterflies
Practicing tagging Monarchs
Practicing tagging Monarchs
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We went on a meadow hike at Ladew and I photographed this little guy who just molted his skin

After gathering some eggs from the meadow walk at Ladew I was ready to begin. Start with the eggs!

Egg Stage

This is where it all starts-Monarchs mating
This is where it all starts-Monarchs mating

For more information on Monarch Raising, go to Monarch Watch.

The hardest part of raising Monarchs is finding their tiny single creamy-white eggs which are smaller than pin heads. Carrying a portable hand lens on an overcast day makes it a little easier to spot the eggs in the field. If you observe Monarchs swooping in and landing on a Milkweed, there is a good chance that she just laid an egg.

I found this egg on the upper side of a leaf
I found this egg on the upper side of a leaf

Monarchs tend to lay their eggs singly on the underside of freshly grown leaves of Milkweed, hidden from predators and directly on their food supply for best survival rates.

Caterpillars are easy to spot with their big bold stripes: the eggs are much harder to spot
Caterpillars are easy to spot with their big bold stripes: the eggs are much harder to spot

The butterfly glues the egg on the leaf surface so that it adheres even through a rain storm, but predators find the eggs a tasty treat. The first egg for me was hard to find, but subsequent ones much easier once I knew what to look for. The likelihood of a Monarch surviving the egg and larval (caterpillar) stages is less than 10% in the wild. For great tips on finding eggs, go to How to Hunt, Gather, and Protect Monarch Eggs . This site gives great information on where, when and how to look.

Smaller than a pin head, eggs can be tough to spot
Smaller than a pin head, eggs can be tough to spot

After locating an egg, I note what type of Milkweed they were attached to and remove the leaf or branch and add it to my “nursery enclosure”, a small plastic container with holes poked in the top. Taking only 3 to 5 days to hatch, watch your eggs carefully as the caterpillar can emerge, eat their egg shell and will move on to fresher leaves pretty quickly. When the top of the eggs turns dark, hatching is imminent.

tiny

Adding some extra Milkweed leaves will keep the tiny caterpillars busy when they hatch. You could also place tulle or pantyhose over the top to keep any wandering minuscule caterpillars inside. Lining the container with a moistened paper towel makes cleanup of the “frass” or black gooey caterpillar poop easy and adds some moisture to their environment. Once inside the house, air conditioning tends to dry the air out for the caterpillars and a light mist from a spray bottle of water helps. I clean out the plastic container every day as the frass can bring in pathogens that can harm the caterpillars.

Itty bitty caterpillar with black head
Itty bitty caterpillar with black head

After the eggs hatch in about 4 days, the tiny caterpillars are no larger than 1/16 of an inch long. They are delicate and easy to overlook as you handle the Milkweed leaves, so move carefully when you are changing out old for fresh leaves.

Next:  Part 2-Larval Stage and How to Make a Tomato Cage Enclosure

Garden Blue

Blue really stands out in a garden:  Chinese Moon Bridge at Les Quatre Vents in Quebec
Blue Corydalis

As a landscape designer, when I ask a client what colors they want in their garden, they invariably will say that blue is top of the list. So, I am always looking for good blue perennials and annuals to satisfy this urge. Blue is also the most popular color in the world so I understand where this is coming from.  Who doesn’t love blue? Lots of blue flowers populate garden catalogs, but some are not suited for my extreme hot/cold climate of the mid-Atlantic, though I can still covet these varieties. If you live in a more forgiving climate, like the Pacific Northwest, you are fortunate and can load up on many of these plants.

Blue Corydalis

There are a few named varieties of this beauty, notably ‘Blue Panda’,  ‘China Blue’ and ‘Blue Heron’. A shade loving perennial that looks like and is a relative of bleeding heart, the finely cut blue grey foliage topped with clusters of azure blue flowers, flowering in mid to late spring, Corydalis dies back in the summer and can flush back with more flowers in the autumn, but hates heat, so I can’t grow this beauty. Needing evenly moist soil, this great pick comes from China and is available from Plant Delights.

Masses of blue corydalis blooming in the UK
Stunning color
Blue Centaurea

Blue Centaurea or Perennial Bachelors Button

I can grow this one and love it. The cornflower-blue, fringed blossoms of this  easy to grow perennial attract butterflies like magnets in the garden. Centaurea blooms from early to midsummer and dies back in the late summer. Beautiful in cut flower bouquets, it will self seed prolifically.

 

Anchusa

Anchusa

Anchusa is another old-fashioned flower that I only see in the UK. I used to grow it years ago and can’t find it anymore at local nurseries, but after seeing it flower in England, I am going to try it again next year. A short-lived perennial that blooms in spring and hates humidity, I can still grow this little gem for spring color. I put this on my list for next year.

A great blue and white combo- Anchusa and Orlaya

 

 

Anchusa used at the Chelsea Flower Show

Balloon Flower

Balloon flower

Balloon Flower, Platycodon ‘Sentimental Blue’, is a sun-loving deer resistant trooper in my garden. Covered in puffy balloon shaped flowers that explode in color, lasting a long time in bloom. ‘Sentimental Blue’ is a dwarf variety topping out at 12″ tall and the easy to grow clump is literally covered with blooms in mid summer.

 

Virginia Bluebells

Heralding springtime bloom, I add to my Virginia Bluebell, Mertensia virginica,  population every year. Blooming in April with trusses of true blue flowers, these will disappear in later summer where other summer bloomers take over. A spring ephemeral that forms large colonies over time, the flowers start off pink and gradually turn a beautiful shade of blue as they mature. I often see bumblebees visit the flowers which last for at least a month, and then disappear. Preferring woodland conditions- rich moist soil I have no problem growing them in my clay soil here in the mid-Atlantic.

Love in a Mist

Love in a Mist, or Nigella hispanica, is an annual which I sow in early March when the weather is still chilly. I scrape off some soil and sprinkle some seeds and by June, I am rewarded with a cloud of blossoms which bloom and turn into interesting seed pods.

Coming in an array of blue shades, Love in a mist will bloom in the spring and form beautiful seed pods
The seed pods dry beautifully

Blue Salvia ‘Victoria Blue’

Blue annual Salvia

Salvia farinacea, another annual that I grow for its true blue color is planted every year in my garden. Easy to grow in full sun, I cut the flower wands for drying and use them in dried flower wreaths and arrangements. Drying true to color, they add a huge color focal point to any arrangement.

A cut bunch of Salvia ready for drying
A dried arrangement with blue Saliva
Dried Salvia

Scabiosa

Scabiosa ‘Fama Deep Blue’

Scabiosa or Pin Cushion flower grows in full sun to part shade with huge (3-4″) flowers. The stunning flowers are fewer in number than the more commonly seen ‘Butterfly Blue’, but spectacular.

Scabiosa ‘Fama Deep Blue’

Offering up double blossoms begging to be cut and placed in an arrangement, it blooms off and on all summer  Nodding flowers held on top of long stems, the flowers can last up to a week in a vase and longer on the plant. Also in a white form, you need to dead head to keep the flower show coming.

Bulbs & Tubers

Spring color is easy to add with fall planted bulbs, by planning a little bit ahead. Grape Hyacinths, Camassia, Scilla,  Iris, and Agapanthus, are my top picks for blue splashes.

Grape Hyacinth ‘Valerie Finnis’
Scilla peruviana
Japanese Iris
Agapanthus
Bearded Iris
Iris ‘Lecture’

 

Camassia bulbs make a great color statement in the spring

Accessories

Anything that you add to your garden – benches, obelisks, bridges, glass balls, etc., is a blank canvas for you to amp up color impact. Forget natural teak benches! and include something with color instead.

Blue obelisk
Add glass balls for color
At Chanticleer, blue painted chairs add a pop of color
Blue Bug
I would love a real peacock to ornament my garden!
Clematis

Hedgehog Haven

An injured Hedgehog at St Tiggywinkles

On a recent trip to the UK, I visited St Tiggywinkles Animal Rescue near London to see the how the European Hedgehog is faring. Found across Western Europe into Scandinavia, reports from the last several years indicates that this native species is declining in much of the UK because of a variety of stressors.

St Tiggywinkles accepts all animals who need care, but the overwhelming majority are hedgehogs

Don’t confuse the native European species Erinaceus europaeus with the domesticated Hedgehog commonly found in pet stores here in the U.S. , a separate species. The European Hedgehog actually lives in tunnels and holes under hedgerows found throughout the UK. And they hibernate through the winter in a sheltered location.

The English Hedgerow Trust says, “Hedgerows are a fundamental part of the heritage of the British countryside, defining the nature of the landscape and providing a major shelter and food source for a huge variety of mammals, birds and insects. Hedgerows are effectively a vibrant ecosystem, a huge nature reserve in our small and (over) intensively farmed country.”

Hedgerows provide shelter for small mammals

Hedgerows are not commonly found in the U.S. like they are in Europe. Strips of bustling wildlife habitat for butterflies, birds, and bats, and many small mammals like mice, hedgehogs, and voles, they provide much needed shelter. Zigzagging across the English countryside composed of a variety of trees, vines, and shrubs, hedgerows can be a beehive of activity. A super habitat for wildlife, hedgerows help nature thrive in narrow strips through large fields, I would love to see more of these in the U.S. instead of fences. Providing sheltered routes along which wildlife can move freely across the countryside between fragmented woodlands, hedges also provide windbreaks and prevent soil erosion.

Formal hedgerow

Insectivores, Hedgehogs are very useful in keeping the grub and insect population down in UK gardens. Slugs are one of their favorite food, one reason I would love to have a family living on my property! Attracting Hedgehogs is easy;  encouraging wild areas and planting out native plant species. A source of fresh water like a pond, log/brush piles and  small houses will also help Hedgehogs to stick around and raise a family. Down in population by 30% in just ten years, the UK has established many rescue centers around the region to help with education and assisting distressed Hedgehogs.  And there are lots of Hedgehogs in trouble!

Small wooden houses are used by hedgehogs for shelter in the UK
Hedgehog houses are for sale everywhere in the UK

So Many Hazards

Covered in a coat of sharp pointy spines, the hedgehog will roll up into a ball when threatened by a predator.  Dogs and badgers are the main aggressors of hedgehogs. Smelly and grumpy, they are still appealing because of their snuffly little nose and beady eyes. Weighing up to 2 pounds, I was surprised how large they were, up to 10 inches long.  They are as big as a small dog!

The hedgehog rolls up into a ball when threatened

Many more hedgehogs are killed and maimed by cars which is the main reason that they are brought to the rescue center. Also, hedgehogs hide in compost or brush piles, so people are warned to check their compost before turning it with a pitchfork as it is easy to impale a hedgehog with the tines. Likewise with bonfires, people are warned to check the brush pile before lighting it so that they don’t end up with a roast hedgehog! Open drains are another pitfall and if a hedgehog is caught, the advice is take two pairs of pliers and grasp the spines with these and lift it out gently to safety. String, barbed wire, and wire used in gardens can also become tangled up with the spines and enmesh them so they eventually starve. Garden poisons are commonly found to be ingested by hedgehogs which will kill them quickly. Wood preservatives that are frequently used on fencing can kill a hedgehog as they like to lick the fencing.

A hedgehog apartment

 

An all too common result of car encounters usually blinds and maims Hedgehogs so that cannot be released back into the wild as they wouldn’t survive. Hedgehogs in captivity often display pacing mechanisms to deal with the stress of captivity.

Hedgehog Friendly

Roaming far and wide, over 20 acres a night, in search of mates, nesting sites, and food, Hedgehogs need access to cut through fences and garden boundaries that are artificially set by humans. People are cutting holes in fences and adding tunnels underneath to help the population. Access to water sources is important but pools without ramps to climb out of can become deathtraps. Invertebrates that Hedgehogs feast on likewise are plummeting, so food sources are drying up. But people are setting out pet food at night for the creatures. An estimated 30 million Hedgehogs were roaming the countryside in the 1950’s; less than 1 million are roaming today. One glimmer of hope is that the decline in numbers is leveling off, perhaps due to conservation/education efforts. Go to Hedgehog Street to see what efforts are being used to wage war on Hedgehog declines.

Hedgehogs eat snails and slugs which are a scourge to many a garden

Hedgehog rescue centers are located throughout the UK just like St Tiggywinkles which I visited. Caring for over 10,000 sick, injured and orphaned animals per year just at St Tiggywinkles, these wildlife care centers are at the forefront of conservation and education efforts to stem the decline of Hedgehog numbers.

A raven being cared for at Tiggywinkles

Tiggywinkles even has a parking lot in front for emergency lifegivers to get in quickly with their injured animals. Caring for not just Hedgehogs, but any wild animal in distress, they release any animals that are healthy back to the wild. Others who cannot make it stay at the center for life and are cared for.

The trauma parking at St Tiggywinkles

Enkianthus-A Shrub to Know and Grow

Enkianthus campanulatus ‘Showy Lanterns’, the red vein enkianthus has always captured my interest with its striking hanging bell-like flowers. In the springtime, this shrub is covered with a profusion of pink-red flowers that cluster thickly along the branches. The  Royal Horticultural Society awarded its Award of Garden Merit to the red vein enkianthus. The cultivar ‘Showy Lanterns’ is my favorite.

‘Showy Lantern’ is a compact, slow-growing selection made some years ago by Ed Mezitt of Weston Nursery in MA. Growing to 5′ tall and 3′ wide, this slow-growing shrub bears heavy clusters of dark pink bell-shaped flowers which give off a soft fragrance in mid-May. Sized for a smaller garden, this shrub rarely has any disease or pest problems and should be more widely planted.

Fall color is shades of orange and gold which can set your garden aglow for weeks.  Enkianthus are deer resistant and prefers a slightly acidic soil, but has proven tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions. This plant rewards the patient gardener with all season interest with beautiful spring flowers and fall interest. Native to Japan, Enkianthus is hardy in zones 5 to 7 and prefers full sun or partial shade.

I call it the ‘ugly duckling’ shrub as it can be pretty homely when you first plant it out, but within a couple of years transforms into a beautiful shrub. Because it can be gangly looking at the nursery, people don’t pick them up. But a deer resistant, shade tolerant small shrub that displays clusters of beautiful flowers deserves a place in everyone’s garden.

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Take Four-Springtime Miniature Gardens

Growing a tiny garden on your desk at work or on your windowsill is the perfect project to start spring. Creating a miniature scene combining small plants, miniature furniture, tools, moss, and colorful pebbles combines crafting with gardening. Shopping at a big box store or local nursery for tiny terrarium plants instead of taking on a big outdoor project that costs a lot of money is my idea of a quick spring project to lift your spirits.

Tiny packets of seed and a trowel are ready to use in the garden

Miniature Garden

A garden designer by trade, I normally design life-size, but also love to design gardens in miniature- especially in the winter when I am housebound. There is something unique about creating a complete space in small scale that is so satisfying.  Garden features that I have only dreamed about having – like a bridge over a dry stream bed, mossy nooks and crannies, and arbors – are so easy to create in miniature and a fraction of the cost.

Nurseries and plant centers are catering to this gardening trend and it isn’t hard to find small scale plants and miniatures, even in the dead of winter.

Using the same container and plants, but changing the accessories

Containers

I think the hardest part of creating mini gardens is finding the appropriate container.  A wide shallow wide container is desirable but hard to find.  That is why I make a lot of my own with hypertufa or Shapecrete.  See my chapter on making shallow heart shaped containers for succulents. If that is too much trouble, then use shallow ceramic or wooden containers with drainage holes. But occasionally I discover a perfect pottery container in my travels and grab it. Bonsai pots are excellent if you can find them.

Pathways always outline the space; I used a sprig of kiwi vine on the right

Planting DIY

  • After choosing the perfect container, fill it up about 2/3 of the way with some good loose potting medium
  • Arrange your plants, usually 3 to 5 of them in an interesting design. Use creeping ones, as well as taller ones like small grasses and different colors to give variety. Make sure you have room for a meandering pathway and small areas to place your accessories.
  • Use naturally miniature plants that are in scale with a tiny garden.  I use ajugas, alternanthera, small grasses, creeping thymes, sedums, sempervivums, mosses, silver falls, trailing rosemary, wire vine, mini liriope, and miniature alpines, like armeria. The plants will eventually outgrow your garden, so you need to refresh and edit the garden periodically. If my thyme or ajuga gets out of hand, I dig it up, separate and use the extras to make a new garden.After planting your selections, I take moistened sheet moss and press it in between the plants to cover the soil. This covering gives you a base to place your stepping stones and other accessories. It also prevents the soil from coming loose and overflowing the container when you water. After creating a pathway, I like to scatter coarse aquarium gravel around the stones to give them definition. As a last flourish, scatter small bits of beach glass or ‘mermaid tears’ to make the path stand out.
  • Here is the fun part! I am always on the lookout on my travels for small pieces to use in my gardens and you can find them in the most unexpected places. Christmas decorations are a surprising source and I find lots of miniature gardening tools and watering cans as ornaments.
  • Don’t worry that the piece will not be the exact scale for your garden –  no one is measuring! Just make sure that you don’t clutter the garden up too much, so use only three or four minis. I love using miniature wheel barrows with a tiny terra cotta pot or a bird house on a stake. Small resin animals, twig arbors, fences, miniature benches or chairs add to the charm. These make a perfect gift for someone who is housebound and cannot garden outdoors.
A resin house is the focal point of this garden

Care

Use a mister to water your garden every 4 to 5 days, and more if the container is in the sun.  Use small trimmers to keep everything pruned to scale. As the plants grow, you will need to transplant them to another container and replace with a new miniature plant.  The gravel or crushed shells will need to be refreshed periodically.  I have been successful with keeping my gardens both indoors and outdoors.  Usually, I place my gardens in partial sun outdoors during the summer and bring them indoors for the winter, keeping it on a windowsill with bright light

Same plants, different accessories

 

 

 

 

Containers With Pizzazz ! Not Your Ordinary Container!

Shade Container
Shade Container

Container Finesse

Updated May 2018

I create containers for clients all the time and am always looking for inspiration to move away from the “geraniums with spike and trailer”  school of thought. With a little more planning and shopping, you can come up with a showplace masterpiece with WOW impact. For pollinator containers, go to Nectar in a Pot- Movable Feast 

Container with a variety of plants for all summer color
Container with a variety of plants for all summer color-Canna, trailing zinnia, trailing petunia, sweet potato vine, coleus, verbena, and salvia

Take pictures of creations that you like and copy them, but add your own personal touches to make it your own. Once you have done enough containers, the combinations are second nature, starting with just one really wonderful plant and working from there.

Succulents- you can go on vacation and leave these without worrying!

Artful Containers

The best piece of advice that I picked up over the years was a secret to coordinating your colors in an arrangement.  Choose a piece of fabric or piece of art that you really like, and take it with you when you plant shop.  Of course, you can’t take a painting with you, so grab refrigerator magnets with famous paintings on them from museums, cut a swatch from fabric, or cut out paintings from magazines.  Inspired by a Van Gogh, my most successful container used the colors from his iris painting. Van Gogh’s painting has that intense blue which so many people adore – also orange, greens, a touch of white and yellow. If you like it in a painting, you will like it in a container!

Beautiful colors from Van Gogh painting

Early spring container by Leigh Barnes

I have plenty of room to plant in my beds but I really enjoy planting in containers because they become a piece of art in miniature. This is my opportunity to try new annuals that are untested by me,  and go wild with the color combos.  Bold, vibrant,  and sizzling color, is the driving force for many of my combinations. To browse the new Pantone colors for 2018, check out Pantone. 2018 Ultra Violet. That inspired me to create containers with intense purples. I love the new AAS Winner Purple Evening Scentsation. It has wonderful color and an even great fragrance! I can smell this one from 20′ away!

Purple Scentsation Petunia, from AAS

Coral Bells waiting in my cold frame

Coral Bells are usually my starting point for color inspiration as they come in some unusual colors not normally seen in the plant world.

A variety of Heucheras
A variety of Heucheras or Coral Bells
Painter palette of colors
Painter palette of colors

I find that there are too many containers with pastel and hum drum hues, and that I rather create a bold and striking container.

Bold container
Bold container

 

Musical Plants-Rearrange for the Season

Portable and colorful, this single plant of Croton can be moved to accent anywhere in the garden
Portable and colorful, this single plant of Croton can be moved to accent anywhere in the garden

I rarely keep my flowers in the pot all season.  They just fizzle by the end of the summer and I get tired of them! Sometimes I have three seasons of containers –  a winter one with an evergreen and some pansies and other cool weather flowers, then I move on to petunias, supertunias, cannas, lantanas -everything that likes heat, and finally to fall plants –  mums, asters, grasses, cabbages, and ferns. I mix and match perennials, shrubs and annuals to get the most versatility and longevity out of my pots. To see my post on Fall containers, go to Creative Fall containers. For early season containers, go to Seasonal Containers.

Seasonal container-miscanthus, chrysanthemum, autumn fern, cabbage, artemisa, ivy

Edibles

Edibles in containers are big now and rightly so. So many leafy crops have gorgeous foliage and shouldn’t be relegated to the vegetable garden, and it is a great way to grow your veggies in limited space. One of my all time  favorite fillers is curly parsley. Colorful kale, lettuce, spinach, and other herbs like thyme are also great. Or, you can have an entirely edible container selection, and include eggplant, tomatoes, lettuce, cucs. The sky is the limit. If it is too late to start seeds, there is a huge variety of midget sized plants available at any nursery that have been developed for container culture.

Little Prince eggplant from Renees Gardens grow great in containers
Little Prince eggplant from Renees Gardens grow great in containers
Container with edibles
Container with edibles-kale, lettuce,, pansies, angelina sedum

Large Containers Are Best

Choose a large enough container to avoid constantly watering it during hot summers.  A pot with a circumference of at least 15 to 18 inches is enough to get you going with a choice of different types of plants, plus enough room for them to grow throughout the summer. I like the light weight faux pots that look like real pottery,  but will not crack and will retain water better than terra-cotta ones. The faux pots will last for years and you can leave them out all winter, plus they are inexpensive and portable. There are even self-watering ones available which have a water reservoir built into the container.  Regardless of the type of container that you have, make sure there are drainage holes in the bottom.  If there aren’t any, drill some using a large bit on a portable drill and be sure to make them large enough, at least 3/4 of an inch in diameter. In addition, elevate your containers for air circulation. I use pot feet to elevate.

Pot feet elevates a container
Pot feet elevates a container
A great little trailer- Silver Falls or Dichondra

Good Soil – Good Plants

Good soil or potting medium is critical for the health of your plants that will be sitting in the container for months or years. Use an organic mix of compost, sphagnum moss, and perlite. There are a lot of commercial potting mixes on the market so be sure to choose one that has added fertilizer to it as container plants need a good boost of fertilizer to bloom all season long, plus regular applications. Make sure that you add a good dollop of compost in the bottom of the pot – a couple of inches at least.  This is where the roots are going to reach down and use up all those nutrients to produce flowers all season long. If you must reuse the same soil, then remove the top 5 or 6 inches and replace with fresh potting medium.

Container in full summer glory

Right Plant, Right Spot

Note if your container will be in all day sunlight, partial shade, or mostly shade.  Shady container plants can be just as colorful as sunny ones with careful selection of colorful foliage. Go to the nursery and ask a knowledgeable employee for suggestions on varieties.  For any situation,  you want something tall for the back, like a grass, cordyline, canna or caladium, and a cascader for the edge and something to fill in between- thrillers, spillers, and fillers!

A container with different types and textures of plants is more appealing
A container with different types and textures of plants is more appealing

It is an overused phrase, but it really describes the process well. For a pot 18 inches in diameter, you would need about 5 to 9 plants. Use a tall architectural one, a couple of fillers, and a couple of spillers. When I create a container, I want mature plants to make a big impact right away. Later on, you can prune and winnow out the ones that are failing to thrive.

Window Boxes

Shade Windowbox
Shade windowbox with begonia ‘Bonfire’

 

Succulent window box
Succulent window box

Planting window boxes uses the same principles as containers. To create depth you really make use of those spillers. Silver Falls, Dichondra, is a great asset for trailing down walls and planters for sun and shade, and the new begonia ‘Bonfire’ is valuable for bright color in the shade.

All three types of plants are used in this standing windowbox, thriller, fillers, and spillers
All three types of plants are used in this standing windowbox- thriller, fillers, and spillers
Trailing Silver Falls out of a windowbox
Trailing Silver Falls out of a windowbox
Silver Falls at Chanticleer in the ruin

Textures

When selecting your plants, consider your textures. I see too many containers planted with flowers and foliage that are similar in texture and look too busy.  Try mixing it up with some broad sculptural leaves, variegated foliage, and deeply lobed leaf shapes. Using varying forms will help your plants stand out instead of blending together in an indistinguishable mass.

Good textural contrast and variety-bubblegum petunia, variegated ginger, black and blue salvia, plectranthus, secretsea
More textural variety

Cannas and Caladiums -Focal Points

A variegated canna as a focal point
Caladiums
Caladiums

Cannas are good selections for sunny containers –  just make sure your pot is large enough.  I have seen cannas get 8 feet tall or higher! For shade, try Caladiums. There are beautiful Caladiums on the market with very colorful unusual markings and they will shine in the shade. But be careful when you plant these as they are very sensitive to cold. Make sure the nights keep above at least 50 degrees before setting these out.

Coleus

Varieties of coleus
Varieties of coleus

The Coleus on the market now are not your grandmother’s Coleus! Many of these new varieties are designed to thrive in full sun –  not shade –   though there are a few that prefer shade only. Literally, there are hundreds of varieties on the market and you could simply do lots of containers with just Coleus and have very colorful pots. Coleus are among my all-time favorites with beautiful striking foliage. I prefer not to let Coleus flower as the flowers detract from the foliage beauty, and when they appear, I pinch them off.


A beautiful Coleus – I forget the name!
Partial shade container in old fashioned lead pot-coleus, dragon wing begonia, fuschia, sweet potato vine, geranium

Maintenance-Nip and Tuck!

Maintenance includes regular watering, at least once a day when it is hot, fertilizing with a dilute or granular fertilizer at least once a week, and pinching back plants as they grow to maintain their shape.  I call this nip and tuck.  If you don’t do this on a regular basis, your plants will get leggy, unattractive, and woody.  If you don’t have good drainage, your plants will literally drown from lack of Oxygen!  Make sure that your drainage holes are large enough so they don’t get clogged up and don’t use gravel in the bottom.  I carry a long metal rod for unplugging clogged drainage holes.

Inserting a metal rod in a clogged drainage hole
Inserting a metal rod in a clogged drainage hole

Added gravel just makes the pot heavier and does not help with drainage. Drip irrigation is an option if you have lots of containers that need regular watering and you don’t want to be a slave to your water can.  Drip is pretty simple to set up, with all the components available at a local nursery or hardware store and they just snap together. I compare it to playing with Tinker Toys!

Grouping

Group your containers, especially if you have many small ones.  By grouping, you achieve a bigger impact and it is far easier to take care of them in one bunch.  If you do drip irrigation, grouping is essential as you use less tubing and you can hide the tubing in the adjacent pots. Grouping also makes it easier for butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds to find the nectar rich flowers.

A large grouping at the National Arboretum in D.C.
Great color combo-coleus, trailing petunia, lotus vine, verbena, silver falls, black and blue salvia
Don’t be afraid to plant just one kind of sensational plant in a container – here it is oleander

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Happy Hollow- Hosta Mecca

Hosta Heaven
Hosta Heaven

Do you want a  garden trip to a run of the mill big box store? Or do you want personal attention? And do you have shady areas in your garden that need TLC and need the ideal plant for that perfect spot? Look no further than Happy Hollow nursery in Cockeysville, MD. Specializing in hostas and other shade loving plants, Sue Bloodgood grows the most extensive collection of hostas around and can share excellent advice on plantings in difficult shady areas that you are scratching your head about.

Selections of miniature Hostas at Happy Hollow
Selections of miniature Hostas at Happy Hollow

Carrying over 200 hosta varieties, Happy Hollow nursery is tucked away in a suburban neighborhood in Cockeysville, MD, and a great place to see the many varieties of Hostas. These can vary from tiny plants suitable for troughs or rock gardens to massive 4-foot clumps with heart-shape leaves almost 2 feet long that are puckered, wavy-edged, white or green variegated, blue-gray, chartreuse, emerald-edged — the variations are virtually endless. This tough, shade-loving perennial, also known as plaintain lily, blooms with white or purplish lavender funnel-shape or flared flowers in summer which are attractive to pollinators.

Sue Bloodgood surveying her dizzying array of hostas
Sue Bloodgood surveying her dizzying array of hostas
A tray of miniature hostas showing the variety that the 'littles' come in
A tray of miniature hostas showing the variety that the ‘littles’ come in

Two large greenhouses full to the brim with hostas and other shade companion plants, like Brunnera, Pulmonaria, Tricyrtus, and shade grasses, Sue carries many unusual and hard to find plants, like “Praying Hands” Hosta.

Praying Hands Hosta
Praying Hands Hosta

Praying Hands is a 2′ wide clump composed of strangely folded, dark green crinkled leaves, each with a narrow, creamy yellow border which resembles a multitude of hands folded in prayer.

Praying Hands Hosta
Praying Hands Hosta

I went to Happy Hollow when I needed some miniature hostas for some clients. My local wholesaler carried about 3 varieties of minis and I needed more. Sue Bloodgood carried at least 2 dozen varieties of minis and it was hard to choose from them all.

I was designing plantings for a boulder garden in the shade and wanted miniature hostas
I was designing plantings for a boulder garden in the shade and wanted miniature hostas

I fell in love with one of her hostas, called ‘Striptease’ and had to take one home.

hos.jpg
Hosta ‘Striptease”
Hostas are the perfect foil for so many plants
Hostas are the perfect foil for so many plants

Boutique nurseries are becoming more and more popular when you are looking for something unusual and the selection at the big box stores can be limited. I haven’t seen miniature hostas other than ‘Mouse Ears’ or the one pictured above called ‘Striptease’ anywhere before, and I do a lot of plant shopping. Catering to a small segment of the discerning buying public, boutique nurseries are struggling to stay in business and are competing with larger nurseries that carry a little bit of everything. But Happy Hollow doesn’t sell fertilizer, pots, or bird houses – they simply sell the best hostas anywhere. And for personal attention and advice for gardening in the shade, stop in at Happy Hollow Nursery. Their contact number is 410-252-4026.

Hosta "Mouse Ears" is adorable!
Hosta “Mouse Ears” is adorable!

For more ideas on shady ground covers, go to my post “From the Ground Up-Choosing the Right Ground Cover For Shade “.

A simple ground cover of hostas can be very effective-Blue Cadet
A simple ground cover of hostas can be very effective-Blue Cadet
Millbourne 176
This one is Kabitan

For more info on Happy Hollow Nursery, go to  Happy Hollow on Facebook.

Summer Snowflake-An Heirloom Bulb

These bulbs aren’t dog proof, but I find that deer never eat them

Underutilized and unknown to many people, Summer Snowflake, Leucojum aestivum, should be planted in more gardens. Deer resistant, easy to grow, and thriving in shady situations, this bulb deserves more recognition. Resembling giant snowdrops, these bulbs bloom for weeks in late April, and not in the summer like the name indicates. If  you have deer and love bulbs and want to grow more varieties than the daffodil stalwart, this is a great candidate to add to your gardens. Looking great naturalized in the lawn or woodland, I planted mine in my garden under a deciduous tree. Getting the early spring sun that shines through the leafless tree canopy is all the light these heirloom bulbs (from 1594!) need.

The bell like flowers resemble giant snowdrops
Gravetye Giant Leucojum

Often seen at old house sites and historic homes, at one time these bulbs were planted widely. But now I rarely see them. Anything that is deer resistant and thrives in shade is valuable to the homeowner who wants early spring color. Belonging to the same family as daffodils, the foliage is very similar with hollow stems supporting the white nodding bells.

There is one named cultivar called ‘Gravetye Giant’ which is a little bit larger than the species. The flowers are larger and remind me of giant lily of the valleys. Reaching 18-24″ tall, the species is slightly smaller at 12-18″ tall.

Cultivation 

Leucojums are hardy in USDA plant hardiness zones 3 through 9. Choose a location with full sun or partial shade and well-drained soil.  Plant the bulbs in fall under 3 to 4 inches of soil and 6 to 10 inches apart.  That’s it! These bulbs will outlive you and remain in place for many years and spread to fill the space, though never becoming invasive.

Available at Brent and Becky’s Bulbs for about $1 a bulb, put this on your order list for fall planting.

Gold Bleeding Heart-Favorite Shade Plant

‘Gold Heart’ Bleeding Heart is a winner for shade

The old-fashioned Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis, has been a garden favorite for years. A stalwart of the shade garden, this plant just got better with the addition of golden-colored foliage and peach colored stems instead of the usual green, that lightens up a shady corner of your garden. The long, arching racemes of pink flowers adorn the plant and really do resemble a bleeding heart.  A classic plant that is deer resistant, ‘Gold Heart’ starts blooming in mid-April and lasts for at least a month. Plants often go dormant in midsummer and surrounding plants like ferns and hostas will fill in. Long-lived, reliable, and self sowing, ‘Gold Heart’ is on my top 10 list of shade perennials.

A  genus of perennials native to Asia and North America, the common name derives from the unusual heart shape of the flowers. All prefer evenly moist soil and little or no direct sun. They’re a boon to gardeners with shade and deer browsed areas.

Discovered in England, ‘Goldheart’ combines well with blue-leaved or variegated Hostas, Solomon’s Seal and  Virginia Bluebells. There are other varieties of Bleeding Heart and you should experiment with some of them.

Dicentra spectabliis ‘Alba’

 

Dicentra spectabilis ‘Valentine’ has vibrantly colored dangling hearts

Old fashioned Bleeding Heart, Dicentra spectabilis
Gold Heart shines in the shade, next to Virginia Bluebells
Gold Heart emerging from blue flowering Ajuga
Good Heart blooming alongside daffodils