An under-used and under-appreciated perennial in the U.S, Tricyrtus or Toad Lily, is gaining in popularity. Called toad lilies because of the spotting like a toad, these beautiful flowers thrive in moist deep shade to partial shade and come back year after year. In addition, the flowers have warty, sack-like bumps at the base of the flowers that appear “toadish” to some. The bumps are actually nectaries where the nectar is stored.
Toad Lilies, Tricyrtus hirta, are in their fall glory right now in mid-October. Growing all year-long, with layer upon layer of foliage sprays, in October the flowers surprise me and emerge from the axels of the leaves with diminutive spotted flowers. Deer tend to leave them alone for the most part, but there are exceptions where I have seen them nibbled.
Growing on upright arching stems the entire plant is attractive. An easy to grow perennial, more people should consider growing these gems in the shady areas of their garden, along with hostas and astilbe.
Filling an important blooming gap in the garden, these plants bloom in October into November when few other plants are flowering. In the lily family, Tricyrtus is a Japanese species of hardy perennials found growing on shaded rocky cliffs in Japan.
Because there isn’t much blooming in the garden in October, bees flock to them and they are an important nectar and pollen source for my honeybees when there isn’t much for them to forage from. And since we have had a record amount of rainfall this summer, the toad lilies are lush and beautiful.
Visitors looking over my garden in the fall, always ask what the strange-looking plant is that is forming large hairy pods. Growing in my veggie garden, because of the amount of space the plants take, my Gymnocarpus physocarpa, or “Hairy Balls” are a conversation starter. A Milkweed family member, another common name is Balloon Plant. Native to South Africa, this plant is an invasive in tropical climates, but in my zone 6-7 area, winter cold keep it in check.
Here are some facts about this amazing plant:
Fast growing annual Milkweed, hardy in zones 8-10
Can sustain lots of munching monarch caterpillars late season
Nectar source for monarch butterflies
Long stems with pods make beautiful table centerpiece
Last viable Milkweed species before fall frost
Start seeds at least 6-8 weeks inside; easy to germinate in about a week
Flowers aren’t super showy, but still attractive
Fewer pollinators use this than native Milkweed
Pinch back the plant to make it bushier and with a stronger stem
Place in the rear of a border as it can top off at 6 feet and may require staking
The pods become ripe when they turn a tan color and burst open with the fuzzy seeds
I save some seeds for planting in early spring in my greenhouse
Though some people have told me that monarch caterpillars have ignored their Hairy Balls, I found at least a dozen of them on my plants at once.
When all of my common Milkweeds are done, Hairy Balls Milkweed is going gangbusters into October and ending with our first hard frost. I have had these plants look good up to Halloween with active caterpillars.
Starting these seeds in my greenhouse in early March is essential to Hairy Balls producing the balloon shaped pods by the end of the summer. For most of the summer, these plants grow up and branch out and then August/September hits and the pods start to appear after a flush of small dangling flowers.
For my monarch populations, this Milkweed is important as it still is standing with plenty of foliage late into the summer/early fall. My other common Milkweed are totally denuded and finished when Hairy Balls hits its stride. For my post on other milkweeds, go to Got Milk….Weed? and Plant Milkweed for Monarchs.
Summer is winding down, the nights are getting cooler, and I looked at my overflowing herb plants for inspiration. Preserving some of the garden bounty for the fall and winter is easy with culinary and ornamental herbs. A quick project using fresh herbs that are pliable and fragrant, you can whip up a simple wreath that will dry in a week or two. Hanging conveniently in the kitchen, it is easy to break off a sprig to add zest to your cooking.
Basket and clippers in hand, I browsed through my gardens snipping off herbs that I often use in cooking, adding some globe amaranth Pink Zazzle, and Cockscomb to add a zing of color. Pink Zazzle Gomphrena has a straw like texture, so is easy to work into the wreath. African Blue Basil is another stellar herb for arranging and drying.
Using a performed wire wreath base to start ( I used a 14″ one), cut your herbs into short 6 inch lengths and lay the pieces into the base. I had lots of rosemary and lavender so used these as a fragrant base. Wind a continuous strand of florist wire around the base, keeping the short pieces firmly attached to the base. Use plenty of material as the herbs will shrink as they dry, leaving empty spaces.
Start bundling your herbs together using green florist pipe cleaners so you can easily attach them to the base.
Start attaching the bundles one at a time, moving around the wreath, overlapping one on top of another, hiding the pipe cleaner.
When you have covered the base thoroughly with herb bundles, I like to add some color. Here I used pink cockscomb and globe amaranth which dries nicely.
Letting the wreath dry flat ensures that the herbs won’t sag or droop down as it dries. This takes about 2-3 weeks and you are ready to hang. After about a week, the herbs were shrinking so much, that I decided to add bunches of fresh thyme to fill the gaps. So, don’t hesitate to use loads of herbs to thoroughly cover the wreath base when you first make it.
Halloween is around the corner and people are starting to decorate with the many types of pumpkins available at the farmer’s market. The past 10 years have seen an explosion of all kinds of colors, sizes, and shapes of pumpkins, but I am in love with a diminutive one, which actually isn’t a real pumpkin, but an eggplant., specifically Ornamental Eggplant, (Solanum Integrifolium). For different types of real pumpkins, go to my Pumpkin Eye Candy post.
Ornamental or Food?
Falling in the eggplant family, the little pumpkins, Solanum integrifolium, are not really pumpkins, but an ornamental used in stir-fried Asian dishes. I grow this cute ornamental jack-o-lantern for jazzing up my Thanksgiving table and fall flower arrangements as it dries nicely and lasts a long time.
Native to Southeast Asia, it grows 3 to 4 feet tall with very large fuzzy leaves that grow from a purple thorny stem. It towers over other eggplants in my garden and the plant looks remarkably like Bed of Nails or Solanum quitoense, profiled in Plant Geek Alert.
Around for over 125 years which makes it an official heirloom vegetable, it has also been called Pumpkin Tree and Pumpkin Bush. Planted directly in full sun in your garden, the plant needs steady moisture and benefits from regular fertilizing as it grows large fast. Pretty soon, the insignificant blooms appear, followed by pale green nubby fruit that turn into their final pumpkin ribbed shape a few weeks later. Insects like to gnaw on the leaves as you can see but deer and rabbits leave it alone because of the wicked thorns.
In late summer, the fruit changes to a scarlet color and when frosts start to hit, the eggplants turn their final rich orange color. You can harvest up to a dozen pumpkins on one plant. When you pick a stem of pumpkins for fresh use, cut the stems and use as is. If you want to dry the pumpkins, hang the entire stalk upside down in a cool dry location, removing leaves. This treatment prevents the fruits from sagging. Fruits will shrivel and the orange color will intensify. For eating, pick the fruits when orange and use in stir-fries.
Floating above the border on long springy stems, Japanese Anemones are a stalwart perennial that lasts for years. Many perennials are short-lived, lasting only for a few seasons, but I have had Anemones bloom for me in my garden for over 30 years. Reliable and deer resistant, they come in a variety of pinks, reds, and whites.
Dancing in the slightest breeze, the dainty flowers are great for floral arrangements in the fall. Commonly called Windflowers, these herbaceous perennials are different from the bulb anemones that bloom in springtime. An autumn bloomer, Japanese Anemone grows well in moist soil conditions and can take part sun or part shade. I find the flower color is actually best with some afternoon shade. They steadily spread when happy.
Japanese anemones can grow 4 feet tall. Some taller varieties may need staking to keep them from falling over. ‘Honorine Jobert’ a wonderful white heirloom variety is one of my favorites, but needs a little help in staying upright.
Spreading by underground runners, the plants can be divided every few years to keep them in bounds. In the spring, you can dig them up and divide them and give some away or spread to other parts of your garden. When frost hits them, cut them back.
Designing With Anemones
Japanese anemones are great additions to part sun gardens paired with Joe Pye Weed, Monkshood, Hosta, and Bergenia. They look best when planted in a mass and have room to spread. Check out my recent post on Joe Pye Weed.
Since so many people have small gardens and can’t accommodate full-sized perennials, shorter varieties of Anemones are on the market and more are coming out. I thought I would hate them as one of the beauties of Anemones is the winsome willowy stems. But the shorter varieties are very floriferous and create a pop of color, albeit with a whole different form. Clumping forms of 12 to 18 inches tall, the plants are covered with blooms to make an instant color statement.
When your coneflowers and phlox are fading from the late summer/fall garden, Japanese Anemones fill a gap in the blooming show that starts up with asters, sedums, and aconitum or monkshood. Forgetting about them all summer long with just the foliage showing, the flowers pop up out of nowhere and you remember why you planted them! For information on Monkshood, go to my post on Monkshood-Deadly Blue Beauty.
When selecting shrubs and trees to plant in your garden, consider not only the beauty of it’s flowers and foliage, but also the bonus of fruit or berries. Berries add another dimension to the attractiveness of the landscape which can last until late winter. Birds and other wildlife benefit from the berries as an important source of food when most other sources have disappeared. Even birds that primarily feast on insects will switch their diets in the winter to berries in order to survive the long lean winter months.
Viburnums are the king of berry production for me in my garden. For a great article on Viburnums, go to Viburnum for American Gardens by Michael Dirr.
The list of berry producing shrubs and trees includes service berry, viburnums, roses, beauty berries, hollies, sumacs, persimmons, bayberries, nandinas, and pyracanthas. I have highlighted a few that are easy to grow, last into winter and are particularly showy.
Viburnum dilatatum ‘Cardinal Candy’ is a nicely rounded deciduous shrub that will grow 6 to 8 feet tall. It likes sun or partial sun and carries an incredible display of abundant, glossy red fruit in the fall that persists into winter. It is blanketed with creamy white flowers in the spring and forms an attractive well branched shrub that fits in well with any landscape. It will cover a steep bank very effectively.
‘Michael Dodge’ has a different berry which sets it apart from most other Viburnums – yellow! Yellow berries are a rarity in the plant world and I treasure this one.
Erie Viburnum has the same red berries as Cardinal Candy, but I particularly like the fireworks display of berries.
Doublefile Viburnums, Viburnum plicatum ‘Mariesii’, are as beautiful in flower as in fruit and does well in shade. Deer tend to steer away from this also which is a big plus. Making a beautiful screen, this deciduous shrub gets as wide as tall and resembles a layered wedding cake.
The American Beauty-Berry (Callicarpa americana ) grows 3 to 5 feet in height and width with long arching branches. It has yellow-green fall foliage and clusters of striking shiny purple berries held close to the branches. The berries also come in white. It is easy to grow in sun or part shade. I cut branches of this shrub and plunge them into vase of water to enjoy the beautiful berries and field a lot of questions about this unusual shrub.
The very name tells it all. Berries lasting through a good part of winter, this shrub shines in the landscape. An unremarkable bush before the berries emerge and change color, once the leaves shed, this is my favorite berried shrub. Winterberry Ilex verticilatta, come in several sizes and colors.
Winterberry Hollies (Ilex verticillata) are deciduous plants. Leaves are mid-green and quite unlike the prickly, shiny leaves of evergreen Hollies, and drop off when frost hits.
Winterberry Holly grows in full sun, partial shade, and even quite dense shade but don’t expect as many berries. Commonly found in wet soil, it also grows well in average soil and tolerates a fair measure of drought once established. It does require an acidic soil. Prune in late winter or after bloom, but be aware that pruning reduces fruit production.
This spring I toured a gorgeous private garden that is stunning for it’s beauty and classic garden design. I enjoyed strolling through the woodland gardens that were peaking with spring color and was struck by the innovative use of ground covers. No overly used big three – pachysandra, vinca, or ivy to be seen! There is a time and place for the big three, but consider the options before settling on the mundane.
Why use a ground cover? Simply, it reduces the empty space around plants that will require weeding. Ground covers crowd out weed seeds that can migrate into the soil spaces between plants, germinate, and start the process of invading garden space. Plus it adds a finishing touch to the landscape. It is similar to putting on your jewelry once you are dressed.
In practical terms, ground covers usually refers to any one of a group of low-lying plants with a creeping, spreading habit that are used to cover sections of ground which require minimal maintenance. Ornamentals such as hydrangeas could be used as a ground cover but more commonly low maintenance perennials like ferns are used to cover large expanses or slopes.
Usually chosen for practical purposes, such as an area where it is too shady for turf to grow or too steep to mow, the selections are many. My favorite selections are for shady spots with some even performing well in dry shade.
There are so many more interesting and attractive options, you just need to arm yourself with these choices and visit a good plant nursery. In addition, if you are a fan of the color blue, you will love these. So read on, and pick the best for your situation.
Who ever thought about using Bluebells as a ground cover? It blooms beautifully and then disappears for another late comer like lamium or hostas to cover up.
Spanish Bluebells, Hyacinthoides hispanica, is a great mid spring bloomer that spans the gap between the early arrivals of spring bulbs such as snowdrops, to the later arrival of mid summer perennials. Their best feature, other than the beautiful blue color, is that they bloom in deep shade as well as in full sunlight. You can naturalize them in a shady woodland underneath evergreen or deciduous trees and they will steadily increase over the years to carpet the ground in an azure swath.
Bluebells are a bulb and come in pink and white as well, but the blue is my favorite by far. They are easy to grow in any woodland condition but will thrive where it is well-drained and with ample moisture. I grow them in my perennial borders with no special care and the foliage will disappear by midsummer. Because of this feature, you can underplant it with another creeping ground cover such as ajuga or sweet woodruff that can will take over once the foliage has died down.
Virginia Bluebells – A Native
Virginia Bluebells, Mertensia virginica, is the native version of Spanish Bluebells. Instead of the strap like foliage of Spanish Bluebells, the leaves are very broad and tissue like in texture. The flower color is an intense cornflower blue.
Virginia Bluebells are a spring ephemeral like so many early woodland bloomers, dying back to the ground. So be sure to have something else like the native woodland phlox to take its place. Later flowering annuals could be plugged into the spot that is empty when they die back or a perennial like late appearing hostas can do the job.
Lamium or Dead Nettle has been mentioned several times already as it is a perfect little ground cover for bulbs to sprout though in the spring. A ground hugging creeper with silvered variegated foliage and some really pretty colored flowers, Dead Nettles are an ideal choice for gardeners who want a tough plant with a variety of foliage colors and textures.
Tolerating a variety of light conditions, Lamium makes a good transition plant between shady and sunnier areas. The cultural adaptability of this great plant makes it a valuable tool in the gardeners planting palette.
Woodland Phlox, Phlox divartica, is a native about 9 inches tall that comes in pastel blue, pink, and white. I love it, but find that it is a very short-lived plant, only three or four seasons. Who knew that there were so many kinds of phlox? Available in creeping, woodland, tall garden, and miniature alpine varieties, and some variations in between, most people are not familiar with the range of varieties available. The Woodland Phlox is a very beautiful member of the family that blooms in April with a punch of color.
Crested Wood Iris
Another underused ground cover is the Crested Wood Iris, or Iris cristata. This diminutive little Iris is only about 6 inches tall and blooms with a miniature azure colored Iris bloom and will spread steadily but not aggressively. It is perfectly adorable! The deer ignore it also. Wood Iris will bloom in very deep shade.
Solomans Seal, Polygonatum variegatum, is a workhorse perennial for me. Plant a small colony of a dozen, and after splitting it up regularly for several years, you will end up with a large swath of nodding white bells! Be warned – Deer do like to browse on them. This perennial will not thrive amongst others as it covers the ground with underground tubers and lasts all season long. Nothing else will grow where Solomans Seal takes over but a large drift is a sight to behold. Yellow fall foliage is a bonus, something that surprises me every year!
Just about everyone knows and grows hostas. A tough plant that is hard to kill, it is a deer magnet for browsing. But if bambi doesn’t roam nearby, try planting large colonies of the same variety for a great looking ground cover. Or vary your planting scheme for interesting textures and hues. I find that hostas play well with other shade perennials and like to add clumps of them along with other ground covers.
Green and Gold
Another golden ground cover that will brighten a shady area is Green and Gold, Chrysogonum virginianum, or Golden Star. A native also, it is known for its star like flowers and creeping hairy leaves. Green and Gold loves moisture and will thrive in a boggy area. I grow it in ordinary garden conditions and it does just fine. It does need some shade or will burn in full sun. Deer leave this one alone!
Hellebores or Lenten Roses
I have been advocating the use of Lenten Roses or Hellebores, as an evergreen, long blooming, deer resistant ground cover for years. The plants are a little pricey but will slowly fill in and throw off seedlings that will cover your ground before you know it. Did I mention that it blooms for three months, sometimes longer? Everyone who has a shady garden should grow these. Tough as nails, this plant will gradually increase in size every year. For more information, read my post, Hellebores-Deer Resistant, Low Maintenance, Shade Loving Perennial.
I really hate that name! Golden Ragwort, Senecio aurea, is another native which I like to use in shady or semi-shady conditions. Senecio blooms with a cheerful daisy-like flower for weeks in the spring. The rosettes of deep shiny heart-shaped leaves are attractive the rest of the growing season. This ground cover will spread steadily and you might have to restrain it a bit, but it is definitely not a garden thug!
Forget Me Not
Another deer resistant ground cover which I recommend is Brunnera or Forget-me-not. This is the perennial Forget-me-not, not to be confused with Myosotis which is a biennial. Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ was the perennial plant of the year for 2012 and deservedly so because of it’s beauty and toughness. Deer give it a wide berth because of the fuzzy foliage and it will hide early spring bulb foliage because it emerges right when the bulbs are dying back. ‘Jack Frost’ is a great cultivar with silver to white webbing on the leaf surface that shines in the shade. The plant is topped off with airy panicles of true blue tiny flowers.
Perennial Geranium does well in part shade to shade and many of the varieties are deer resistant. Blooming with delicate flowers in the spring, these are tough perennials that will form nice weed smothering clumps.
Mazus is a low-growing ground cover that spreads by creeping stems which root at the nodes as they spread. Growing only 2″ tall, this tiny creeper can spread pretty fast forming a dense, steppable cute ground cover. The foliage stays green for at least 9 months of the year and explodes in spring with purple tubular beautiful flowers. There is a white version also.One of my favorite ground covers, I use Mazus whenever I have a smaller area like between stepping stones to cover.
Euphorbia or Spurge is rarely seen as a ground cover and should be used as it can tolerate dry shade. Evergreen and deer resistant, spurge is topped with lime green flowers in the spring. I am a sucker for the color lime. The color really brightens a dark area. Euphorbia robbiae easily grows in shade or sun and sports rosettes of handsome leathery leaves all season long.
If you want to grow the ultimate flower buffet for butterflies and bees, try Joe Pye Weed. When there isn’t much else blooming, Joe Pye will surprise you with fuzzy pink umbels of flowers that flying insects clearly relish. I planted only one plant of the great late summer bloomer, Eupatorium dubium, ‘Little Joe’, which has spread to cover an area about 5 feet by 5 feet. After 5 years of growing this plant, I have found it not to be invasive but it definitely spreads. When it goes beyond its bounds, it is easy to pull it up.
In late summer, my ‘Little Joe’ patch has formed a nice clump in front of my greenhouse; it has finished blooming but I keep it up for structure. It will get taller as the summer progresses.
‘Little Joe’ tops out at 4 feet tall, as opposed to the more commonly grown ‘Gateway’ which can get up to 7 feet high and can flop. I hate to stake flowers, so picked ‘Little Joe’ to avoid that fate. Now there is another cultivar called ‘Baby Joe’ which only gets 2 to 3 feet high which I need to try next.
Joe Pye is a native wildflower which grows along streams in the wild near my house. It gets enormous! I stayed away from it for years because of the size and difficulty in siting such a large specimen. But I am in love with ‘Little Joe’ which has beautiful burgundy stems.
Once the flower starts to bloom, I am sure to see at least a half-dozen different types of bees and butterflies landing, and the other day saw 5 Monarchs resting on my one plant!
‘Little Joe’ comes in a ‘garden friendly’ package of a plant that is easy to grow in full sun to part shade and has sturdy stems that will support the flower heads and won’t bend or flop. The plant is drought tolerant and fragrant with mauve purple flower heads which can reach 12 inches across!
The flower persists for weeks and the seed heads will last through the winter and will provide food for the birds when food is scarce. What is not to like? A tough beautiful, easy to grow plant which provides entertainment. I visit it every day to see what insects and butterflies have made a visit. For more information on planting pollinator plants, go to my posts Creating Monarch Waystation and Plant These For the Bees. Also, my Garden Plan for Pollinators is a good resource.
Tomato Hornworms are really big green caterpillars that can munch through and devastate your vegetable garden. Giant brown moths lay pearl-like eggs on your tomato, pepper, or eggplant, from which the big green monsters will hatch and start to eat voraciously. The juicy grass-green caterpillars can strip a plant overnight and then start demolishing the fruit.
Frass & Defoliation
Most of the time I spot the signs of a hornworm before I see the actual caterpillar. The first things you will notice about a hornworms presence is denuded branches and fruits with huge sections eaten out of them. Hornworms love to eat foliage and since they are such large caterpillars, they have a big appetite which means they poop alot. Another sign is bits of frass (droppings) on the lower leaves or on the ground which are black.
Getting Rid of Hornworms
Handpicking is the best way to get rid of these nasty green monsters, but I avoid touching them. With repulsive juicy caterpillars, gloves are the best option as the caterpillars usually have a death grip on the foliage and they are difficult to pick off. Once free, I stomp on these gross pests. Or feed them to the chickens for a juicy treat!
Beneficials are just that: Insects that are doing their job and preying on other harmful insects that makes your job a bit easier. For example, preying mantis’s will hunt and devour lots of insects that will hurt your ornamentals and vegetables. Leave them alone to do their job!
So if you spot these little white worms sprouting out of the hormworm caterpillar, you do nothing as nature has taken care of it for you. These soft white growths are actually the cocoons of a special parasitoid wasp a species of braconid wasp. The adult female wasp uses her ovipositor to lay eggs just under the skin of the unlucky hornworm. As the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the hornworm’s insides, eating the hornworm alive.
Larvae chew their way through the host skin when they mature and make a cocoon. which hatches into a tiny wasp. The wasps are usually dark with four transparent wings and rarely over one-half inch long. Their size and the fact that there are over 15,000 species make them difficult to notice, much less identify. So these tiny wasps are doing you a favor and killing the hornworm caterpillar by using the body as a hatching ground for their young is kind of like ‘meals on wheels’!
Each cocoon will hatch a new wasp which will lay eggs in more hornworms that are eating your veggie garden, so leave them alone!
See this fascinating video below to see the wasps hatching out of these cocoons.