Turf Alternatives

As a landscape designer, a frequent request from clients is getting rid of their lawn and replacing with more natural alternatives. Water hogging and pesticide laden lawns are being replaced nowadays with different varieties of grasses, meadows, and other perennials that form a low growing mat, like thyme or mazus.

Mazus underplanted with a  bench

Ubiquitous American Lawns 

Today lawns cover more than 63,000 square miles- almost the size of Texas! And Americans are still in love with their lawns, but this is gradually changing. Turfgrass is mostly made up of non-native grass species and requires a huge amount of water, pesticides, fertilizer, labor, and fuel. There are definitely areas where lawns are useful, like in playing fields, but lawns are way over-planted. The bio-diversity of a lawn is extremely low compared to meadows and other garden plantings, and cost billions of dollars each year to maintain, as well as contribute to water pollution. More and more botanic gardens such as Longwood Gardens and the new Delaware Botanic Gardens are establishing flourishing beautiful expanses of meadow to showcase the beauty of natives in a natural setting.

New meadow plantings at Delaware Botanic Gardens, photo by Amy Sparwasser
Yellow Sulphur on cardinal flower in meadow at Delaware Botanic Garden, photo by Amy Sparwasser

The decline of our native pollinators has been traced to more lawn installation, roundup spraying, big agriculture, and less wild plantings with “weeds”.

To many people, Milkweed is considered a “weed”

Thyme Lawn

For one client, I removed an area of 500 square feet of turf by tilling and raking out, then planting with 1100 thyme plugs (tiny plants). Irrigated with a drip hose until the plants take root, thyme can form a thick mat of creeping foliage that blooms a sea of pink flowers in the spring. Thyme is not native to North America, but works quite well here in the right conditions. There are hundreds of varieties of thyme, but I stick with the low creeping ones.

A lawn area before turning it into a thyme lawn and native plants
Thyme lawn is irrigated with a soaker hose until established. The other part of the lawn is being planted with pollinator friendly plants
Creeping thyme is very steppable

Mazus reptans is another creeping plant that does well in partial shade to shade that spreads quickly to form a mass of creeping foliage with white or purple flowers in the spring.

Variety of ground covers cover a lot of ground here; the yellow is Chrysogonum
Mazus reptans

Change in Attitudes

More and more, I am seeing lawns disappearing and being replaced with perennial grass alternatives like Carex or Sedges and even more radical with meadow plants, like goldenrods and other native wildflowers.

Carex rarely needs to be cut
Carex Pennsylvanica under the chair and Hakonechloa on the edges in Toronto, Canada
Beautiful mix of wildflowers in England

The UK is way ahead of us and establishes meadows everywhere they can, like graveyards.I have seen graveyards in England being replaced with meadow grasses instead of the buzz cuts around gravestones that you would normally see.

Meadow in graveyard in England

But how to get rid of lawns? I suggest gradually turn your property into alternative plantings. Don’t expect it to be done overnight and be cognizant of your neighbors and Home Owners Associations (HOA). Get permission and if that is not forthcoming, then try to educate others about the alternatives. I am a beekeeper and wanted to make a meadow around my beehives to increase bee foraging opportunities, and created a meadow around my beehives.

Meadow around my beehives

To see how I created a meadow and other strategies in creating bee habitat, go to Plant These For the Bees.

Carex and Sedges

One alternative to consider are Carex’s or Sedges to replace turfgrass. Carex pennsylvanica, commonly called Pensylvania Sedge, is a shade-loving perennial sedge that is native to dry woodland in Eastern North America. Semi-evergreen in cold winter areas, this makes a great lawn substitute for dry shady areas, where you might have had trouble growing regular turfgrass. Never needing to be mown, it grows about a foot high, spreading by rhizomes to cover large areas.

Carex Pennsylvanica

Thyme Lawn for Sunny Areas

Creeping or spreading thymes are an alternative in a sunny location with good drainage. Remove your grass by either spraying with an herbicide, tilling it under, or killing with black plastic.

Killing weeds with black plastic is an effective way to kill perennial and annual weeds

Meadows

What makes a meadow? An open habitat or field covered by vegetation, usually grasses and other non-woody plants providing areas for nesting, food gathering, pollinating insects, and shelter for small animals. Many people wish to replace their lawn with a meadow but think by sprinkling seeds out of a can they can get that look.

Garden writer, Stephanie Cohen, has planted large deer resistant meadow areas at her house in Pennsylvania
Sign at Longwood Gardens meadow
Walking in the meadow at Longwood
Native Monarda in Longwood Meadow

It is important to first remove the existing turfgrass by tilling or killing it with black plastic, cardboard, or newspaper covered with mulch or soil. You can then plant with selected native and non-native plants that do well in your location to form a dense covering of perennials that will crowd out weeds.

Kill turf with black plastic or newspaper covered with soil or mulch

Try using at least 80-85% native plants in your mix. Alternatively, you can use a good wildflower mix and spread the seeds after preparing your ground by raking it out, sprinkling, and raking the seeds into the soil. Firm the soil with a tool to make sure you have good contact and keep moist until the seeds sprout and get established. Don’t think you can sprinkle seeds from a can directly onto the ground and expect the meadow to appear that is pictured on the wildflower canister! There is work involved in establishing a meadow that looks picture perfect.

Meadow at Delaware Botanic Garden has lots of grasses, photo by Ruth Clausen

Maintenance is still required to weed out undesirables that pop up which will happen less frequently as the plants knit together to form a weed killing mat. And your meadow will need to be mown down in early spring.  Here is a great list from Longwood Gardens of meadow wildflowers that they recommend.

For more information on lawn alternatives, The MD Extension Service has a great article on Ways to Reduce Your Lawn.

Fragrant Sweet Annie

Sweet Annie, Artemisia annua, is an herb I remember from the seventies and eighties. Intensely fragrant smelling green herb wreaths were made up in the fall from the branches and I would see them everywhere for sale at craft fairs and outdoor festivals.

Wreath of Sweet Annie

I kind of forgot about Sweet Annie for a long time until a volunteer plant emerged from my asparagus patch this summer and shot up all summer long, until by September it towered over 6 foot high with many sweet smelling branches ready to be harvested. Deciding to let it remain in my asparagus patch, I watched it all season long until I accidentally brushed against it to release the intense sweet fragrance. Once you smell it, you will never forget it! Lingering on my hands and clothing long after brushing into it, the fragrance is hard to describe with an almost fruity fragrance.

Sweet Annie growing in my asparagus patch is about 6 feet high

Classified as an annual weed, Sweet Annie has escaped cultivation and is a favorite of crafters for its versatility and sweet fragrance and to floral arrangers as an aromatic filler. Slow to germinate, and late to bloom (mine just started to bloom in early to mid-September here in zone 6b), it readily self-seeds, so I know I will have more next year and will probably have to pull some out. Not a beautiful plant, more weed-like than ornamental, it was fine relegated to my vegetable patch.

Harvesting

Yellow green beads form on the end of the branches as flower buds

Growing like a well-branched Christmas tree, I waited until yellow beads appeared on the branches arranged in panicles, which are the buds of the flowers. This is the perfect time to harvest it and I cut the woody trunk down with loppers and then cut off each individual branch for drying. If you harvest it earlier, the branches will kind of shrivel up. Some I bunched up with a rubber band and hung up in my basement for 1-2 weeks, for straight trusses. Other branches, I curled up in a trug for drying. That way, the branches will dry in a rounded form, perfect for making into sweet smelling wreaths.

Drying branches of Sweet Annie in round trugs

A sun lover, my Sweet Annie plant required no care and it loved our drier weather this season.

Sweet Annie’s Uses

Sweet Annie, known in China as qing-hao, has been used in treating malaria and fever for hundreds of years. Fruity, astringent, aromatic, Sweet Annie has been used as an air freshener and pest deterrent. You can crumble some into your carpet before vacuuming for a long lasting fragrance to linger long after you have finished cleaning.

Freshly cut Sweet Annie ready to be bundled up

Commonly used in crafts as a base for wreaths and swags, and a filler for arrangements, the dried plumes can be used in a variety of ways. Break up the large branches into smaller pieces for different projects. More pronounced in humid weather, the fragrance can waft on the breeze into my house. If you hang a branch in a bathroom, the damp air will release the fragrance. Unfortunately, some people are allergic to Sweet Annie, with bouts of sneezing and sometimes skin irritation. I find that the sneezing happens if I work with it too much, so limit my time with it. I enjoy Sweet Annie from a distance!

Sweet Annie makes a great filler in arrangements; here I arranged with marigolds, cosmos, dahlias, and goldenrod

For other herbal wreath ideas, go to my post Fresh Herbal Wreath.

Fresh Herbal Wreath

Customize Your Garden With Heirlooms

As a landscape designer, I am always looking for beauty in my surroundings- beautiful fabrics, furnishings, spaces, and colors are really important to me. Extend that to my vegetable garden and I also want beautiful vegetables and fruit decorating my garden bed to eat. Heirlooms deliver on that in spades! Instead of the usual mealy Florida grown tomatoes available in the grocery store, I grow a rainbow array of veggies to decorate my plate.

Array of heirloom tomatoes
I grew this heirloom “Mushroom” tomato this year
Heirloom harvest

Yes, it takes a lot of effort and sweaty hard work during some hot summer days. But when I pick those basketfuls of colorful vegetables and bring them in the kitchen, it is worth it. Heirlooms have been saved for decades and sometimes centuries because they are the best performers in home gardens. They haven’t been grown so that they ship more efficiently and last longer on the grocery shelf, but because they look good and taste good.

Variety of heirloom peppers
Beautiful heirloom tomato
I grew this “speckled trout lettuce”, an Heirloom from Austria, in containers because it was so pretty

Seed Choices

Shopping for vegetable seeds nowadays means either picking from modern hybrids created by crossing two selected varieties, or heirloom veggies which are open pollinated, saved and handed down through family generations. Usually costing less than hybrids, heirlooms have been shown through recent research to be more nutritious if not as prolific as hybrids. I will take the downside of less prolific with my heirloom varieties if they are tastier.

Heirloom tomatoes are $2.99 a pound at a farmers market

Heirloom Advantages

Selecting and saving seeds from the most successful heirlooms in your garden over the years, the more the seeds will adapt to your local conditions. Plus you save money. Many hybrid seed packets range in price from $4 to $10 and sometimes you get very few seeds, with packets containing just 10 seeds in some cases.  Connecting with history is another great reason to grow heirlooms.

Chiogga beets hail from northern Italy in the 19th century

Boston Marrow

Many heirlooms go back for hundreds of years and can be traced back to original growers. For example, the Boston Marrow winter squash has quite a history attached to it. Foodtank a food think tank publication  says this about Boston Marrow: “Precisely when and how the Boston Marrow became domesticated in America is unclear. However, Fearing Burr, the author of Field & Garden Vegetables of America, was the first person to document the Boston Marrow squash in 1831. In his book, Burr mentions that Mr. J.M Ives of North Salem, Massachusetts, received the seeds of the Boston Marrow from a friend who lived in Northampton, Massachusetts. As the story goes, Mr. Ives then distributed the seeds to members of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society who, he claims, had never seen the specimen previously. Mr. Ives also mentions that his friend whom he received the seeds from, had in fact, been given the seeds from Buffalo gardeners who got them from a tribe of Native Americans that visited the area; and this is apparently how it all begun.”

Boston marrow in amongst an award winning veggie assortment at a farm fair

Read my post Move Over Butternut-Try Boston Marrow for the custardy pie recipe and more information on this heirloom.

I haven’t grown Boston Marrow yet as I only have room for several vining varieties of squash but it is on my list. For now I buy it at Farmer’s Markets.

Boston Marrow is sold by Burpee
Boston Marrow pie
Heirloom Boston Marrow makes a delicious pie

Farmer’s Markets

Farmers Markets are a great source of heirlooms
Seen at a farmer’s market, this peanut pumpkin fascinated me

Talking to growers at farmers markets is a great way to discover heirlooms and listen to their stories about their beautiful produce.

Trolling farmers markets is a great way to pick up heirlooms

Growers that I have talked to are only too eager to share information about the heirlooms that they grow and you can pick up some vegetables and save the seeds after consuming it! I did that with a Marina Di Chiogga winter squash that I admired at a farmers market and saved the seed to plant in the spring. Now I am overrun with this delicious winter squash!

Dozens of these Marina Di Chioggas are growing in my vegetable garden this summer
I am growing Porcelain Doll Pumpkin this year also which is a hybrid. Unfortunately I can’t save this seed as it won’t grow true to type like an heirloom would

Saving Seeds

An advantage of heirlooms is that you can save the seed from year to year instead of shelling out money each spring for new seeds. For a great book on saving seeds as well as starting, check out Julie Thompson-Adolph’s excellent book Starting & Saving Seeds

Saving seeds can be as easy as removing pumpkin seeds from the flesh, washing and drying them, to fermenting tomato seeds in water for several days to remove the gelatinous gel coating the seeds. Julie will walk you through the process of saving all kinds of seed from your garden and even how to hand pollinate corn for the best seed set. Flowers and herbs are also covered and I was interested to see she had a tutorial on making seed tape from toilet paper!

Seed Exchanges

Another great source of heirlooms are local seed exchanges. Everyone brings their cleaned seeds and lays them out for people to pick from and hopefully you will get some varieties that you want and things that you have never seen before.

Seed Exchange

In the early spring, seed exchanges pop up and I found this one at my local library and came home with lots of good stuff.

At my local library

Vegetables aren’t the only heirlooms that I grow. Heirloom annuals are also high on my list to plant in the spring. Go to my post on Heirloom Annuals.

Corn Cockle or Agrostemma is an heirloom that I will be starting this spring

For seeds of this, go to Renee’s Gardens.

Milkweed Chronicles

Common Milkweed

One of the most beautiful flowers, both in flower and seed pod, as well as great importance to wildlife, has been relegated to the roadside for years and virtually ignored. Asclepias syriaca, or common milkweed, is struggling and harder to find because wild areas are disappearing and roadsides are  regularly mown. “Familiarity breeds contempt” is a common saying and one that I would apply to this plant. Only when something becomes scarce do we appreciate it, and I can see that happening with milkweed. But there is a sea change coming down the pike and people are being urged to plant this “weed”.

Colony of Milkweed
Showy Milkweed

Acknowledged as a primary source for survival of many insects, notably the Monarch,  people are waking up to its integral role in supporting other wildlife. See my post Monarch Waystation on the many reasons to plant milkweed for Monarch survival.

Showy Milkweed

My favorite Milkweed and the one that I consider the best suited for a perennial border is “Showy Milkweed”, or Aslepias speciosa.  This species is closely related to the Common milkweed,  A. syriaca, with which it sometimes hybridizes. Ultimately reaching about 2-3 feet high, the foliage is velvety and grey green and very “garden worthy”. Here is great information about this plant from the USDA: Showy Milkweed.

Showy Milkweed
A nice blooming clump of Showy Milkweed

Milkweed Facts

  • Milkweed is the only plant on which monarch butterflies will lay their eggs, and it is the only food source for monarch caterpillars
  • It grows in colonies that expand in size every year; each individual in a colony is one side shoot of a large plant and are genetically identical or a clone; one large branching underground rhizome connects the entire colony
Monarch caterpillar munching on a milkweed
  • Surprisingly, the flowers are extremely fragrant and you can smell a colony long before you see it
  • Although one shoot may have between 300 to 500 flowers that make up the umbels, only a few of these develop into pods

    Milkweed pods are positioned vertically

     

  • Vegetative and flower growth is rapid, but the pod development is very slow and held on the plant for many weeks
  • The pods are held vertically to the plant and hold many seeds; germination of these seeds is very sparse; milkweed more likely expands by underground rhizomes than from seed
  • The nectar is very high in sugar content, 3% sucrose, and the supply is constantly being renewed over the life of the flower; the flowers produce much more concentrated nectar than the many insects that feed on it could ever remove
  • Milkweed teems with insect life, providing food and micro habitat to hundreds of insect varieties
  • At least 10 species of insects feed exclusively on milkweeds, notably the Monarch butterfly caterpillar
  • The adult Monarch lays its eggs on the leaves of common milkweed, the larvae live on its leaves and milky sap, and the adult Monarchs drink from the flower nectar, although adults will drink from other flowers
  • The latex milky sap from the milkweed is extremely toxic to other wildlife and is concentrated in the tissues of the Monarch which protects it against predators
Milky sap exudes down the stem
  • The adult Monarch migrates south. East of the Mississippi, they fly as far as 4,800 meters to over winter in Mexico, often to the same tree location
  • This relationship between the milkweed plant and the monarch butterfly makes the pairing a symbiosis, where they become one entity instead of two separate organisms. Most importantly, without the presence of the milkweed plant, monarchs would go extinct.
Asclepias incarnata
Asclepias incarnata
Common Milkweed in December

Other Varieties of Milkweed

Asclepias tuberosa, orange-flowered Milkweed below is probably my all time favorite for drawing insects and pollinators to the garden early in the season, around June for me in the mid-Atlantic. A long-lasting cut flower, I scatter it through my borders to brighten up early summer plantings. It comes in an all yellow version called “Hellow Yellow”.

Yellow butterfly Weed "Hello Yellow"
Yellow butterfly Weed “Hello Yellow”

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ther milkweed which is a conversation piece oddity is Asclepias physocarpa (changed to Gymnopcarpus Physocarpus, a mouthfull!), or Hairy Balls. Forming puffy seed balls two to three inches in diameter, the orbs are covered with hairs and are quite bizarre looking. Perfect for flower arranging, the cut branches are quite expensive to buy from a florist, but easy to grow. A favored host of the Monarch butterfly, I always try to grow this plant for the odd looking pods. The caterpillars seem to prefer this variety over all others.

The pods of Hairy Balls or Balloon Plant are a conversation piece

Monarch caterpillars cover the Balloon Plant Milkweed

Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, is commonly seen growing in Florida and has bright red-orange and yellow flowers and is also a great nectar source. The leaves are narrower and the plant produces many more seed pods than the common milkweed.

Tropical Milkweed
Tropical Milkweed
Sign at nursery for Swamp Milkweed
Swamp Milkweed has a narrower leaf than common
Swamp Milkweed growing by pond

 

Plant Three Pollinator Plants for National Pollinator Week 2019

Twelve years ago the U.S. Senate’s unanimous approval and designation of a week in June as “National Pollinator Week”, marked a necessary step toward addressing the urgent issue of declining pollinator populations. Pollinator Week has now grown into an international celebration of the valuable ecosystem services provided by bees, birds, butterflies, bats and beetles.

The NPGN’s Million Pollinator Garden Challenge registered over one million new pollinator gardens in just the last three years. They salute Washington-Arlington-Alexandria area for being a Top Pollinator City with 13,493 registered gardens. The NPGN is encouraging everyone to plant three new pollinator-friendly plants, one plant for each season to ensure a consistent food supply for pollinators.

To make it easy to figure out what to plant, you can ask at native plant sales, visit nature centers, and go to websites like plants.usda.gov. This website has  regional and state lists of native plants that you can plant in your area which includes trees, shrubs, vines, and herbaceous plants.

Here are my three top picks that span the seasons:

Jeana Phlox

Possessing outstanding mildew resistance of shades of lavender-pink flower clusters, this native phlox is a star in my garden and always draws a lot of interest from visitors. Pollinators cluster around the heads constantly, providing a show for weeks in the mid-summer, and giving me lots of photography opportunities. Ranking at the top in ecological and horticultural trials, this plant should be in many more gardens.

Just listen to this rave review from Mt Cuba Center in Delaware who has trial gardens testing for usefulness, beauty, and pollinator visits.

“Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’ is, without a doubt, the best-performing phlox from the trial. This cultivar was discovered growing along the Harpeth River near Nashville, Tennessee and named after its discoverer, Jeana Prewitt. Although there were many plants of Phlox paniculata in the area, ‘Jeana’ in particular stood out for its exceptionally mildew-free foliage. This trait carries through to the garden and is one of the main reasons ‘Jeana’ performed so well in the trial. This 5′ tall beauty also produces an impressive floral display from mid-July through early September. Interestingly, the individual flowers, or pips, are much smaller than any other garden phlox. However, that does not deter the butterflies that feed on its nectar. In fact, we found ‘Jeana’ attracted more butterflies than any other garden phlox in the entire trial. With a top rank in both horticultural and ecological evaluations, Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’ is hard to beat.”

The trial gardens at Mt Cuba with ‘Jeana’ Phlox ready to bloom, photo courtesy of Mt Cuba

A taller flower topping out at 4′ to 5′, I love grouping these plants for a big show of flowers plus pollinators. Sometimes staking or some kind of support is necessary, like helpful supporting plants surrounding your clump. One of the only phlox paniculatas that I know tolerating deer browsing, it is a useful landscape plant for the perennial border. The lavender pink shade goes well with many other colors and the plant behaves and doesn’t spread aggressively.

Photo courtesy of Mt Cuba

Facts

Common Name: garden phlox
Type: Herbaceous perennial
Zone: 4 to 8
Height: 2 to 5 feet
Spread: 1.50 to 3.00 feet
Bloom Time: July to September
Bloom Description: Lavender-pink
Sun: Full sun to part shade
Water: Medium
Maintenance: Medium
Flower: Showy, Fragrant
Attracts: Hummingbirds, Butterflies
Tolerate: Deer, Clay Soil, Black Walnut
Where to purchase ‘Jeana’ Phlox? At Independent Garden Centers and Nurseries, and more than likely, the plant will have an American Beauties hang tag identifying it as a native plant choice. For local people in Baltimore County, Maryland, go to Valley View Farms. You know you are making a good environmental choice for your garden.
American Beauties Native Plants is a great resource for home gardeners with a Native Plant Library on-line. Native perennials, grasses, vines, trees and shrubs which attract wildlife and pollinators especially are listed in an easy to use resource guide. Listed by common name or botanical name, you can scroll through the many possibilities available for planting. I find the Plant Search, where you can plug in your state and specify what kind of plant that you are looking for, is most useful to me. The web site even has landscape design plans using natives for every area  of the U.S. for sun or shade.
Red Bodied Swallowtail on ‘Jeana’ Phlox

 

Photo courtesy of Mt Cuba
Monarchs flock to ‘Jeana’ Phlox

Mountain Mint

Another top choice is a little-known mint, called Mountain Mint which blooms for 15 to 16 weeks.

Not all plants are equal in their ability to support pollinators with nectar and pollen. Penn State has conducted a series of trials on different pollinator plants that evaluated plants for their numbers of insect visitation as well as for their vigor and blooming. Go to their site at Penn State trials to check it out. Not only the number of insect visitors is important, but also the diversity.

 

Early growth of Mountain Mint in the spring
Early growth of Mountain Mint in the spring

According to Penn State trials, overall, the single best plant in both 2012 and 2013 and 2014 for attracting both pollinators and total insects was Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum). A 30-inch-tall, wood’s-edge native perennial with grayish-green leaves and pale-pink summer flower clusters, it is hardy in zones 4 to 8. Originally discovered in Pennsylvania in 1790, this plant increasingly is being rediscovered by savvy gardeners and added to landscapes.

The sheer number of insects that you see on Mountain Mint is amazing; The entire plant buzzes
The sheer number of insects that you see on Mountain Mint is amazing; The entire plant buzzes

Uses

Mountain Mint is both edible and medicinal. Raw or cooked, the flower buds and leaves are edible and have a hot, spicy, mint-like flavor that makes a great spice or seasoning for meat.

An aromatic herb used in potpourri and as a bath additive, Mountain Mint will freshen laundry in the dryer. Thrown into a drawer, it will keep clothes fresh and moths away. Said to be a good natural insecticide, the dried plant repels insects but the growing plant attracts them! Containing pulegone, the same insect repellent found in pennyroyal, it repels mosquitoes when rubbed into the skin.

Mountain Mint positively dances with all the pollinators that are attracted to it.

How To Grow

Mountain Mint grows up to 2 to 3 ft. tall, usually branched on the upper half, growing from slender rhizomes (underground stems) usually in clusters. The lance -shaped leaves are 1-2 inches long and light green turning to almost white as the plant matures. Blooming in late summer to early fall, flat clustered flowers top the plant with 1/2 inch long pale lavender blooms. Gather tops and leaves when flowers bloom and dry for later herb use.

Not attractive to deer, Mountain Mint will also grow in tough dry shade conditions. Being a typical mint member, this mint travels! So, place it in an out-of-the-way place that it can run free.

Mountain Mint is one of the best nectar sources for native butterflies, and is a nectar filled landing pad for all pollinators.

Mountain Mint label at Heartwood Nursery
Mountain Mint label at Heartwood Nursery

Sources

Many good nurseries will carry this plant. Locally, you can find it at Heartwood Nursery , a great native plant nursery in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania. I found the plants on-line at The Monticello Shop in Charlottesville, Virginia, and even on Etsy and Ebay.

Bee Balm

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Attractive to both hummingbirds and bees as well as humans, Bee Balm is one of my favorites as an early summer bloomer and easy to grow perennial. Commonly known as Bee Balm or Monarda, Bee Balm is “balm” to all flying insects and enjoyed by humans in teas and potpourri. Each flower head rests on a whorl of showy, pinkish, leafy bracts. Flowers are attractive to bees and butterflies.

P1050591
‘Jacob Cline’ Monarda, a good tall variety

One of the 21 superstar pollinator plants that I designed my poster with, and available at TheGardenDiaries Etsy shop, Bee Balm is a pollinator superstar and always has many insect visitors on a sunny day.

Plant These For The Bees
Plant These For The Bees

Other common names include horsemint, oswego tea, and bergamot, the latter inspired by the fragrance of the leaves, which is reminiscent of bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia). Bergamot orange is the flavor that gives the unique taste of Earl Grey tea.

A bee diving in!
A bee diving in!

From the roots, up to the flower, the entire plant has a spicy minty fragrance which quality repels deer and other browsing critters.

P1050686
Even rabbits shy away from Monarda

A valuable plant for landscaping because of this repellent attribute, Bee Balms now come in petite and dwarf sizes to fit into smaller gardens. Even though the entire dwarf plant is smaller, the flowers are the same size or larger than some of the taller varieties.

P1040624
Closeup of ‘Leading Lady Plum’

Although bee balm appears to have thin narrow petals, close up they are really little hollow tubes perfect for thin beaks like hummingbirds. “Leading Lady Plum’ has a scattering of dark plum spots on the tips of the petals, adding another color dimension to this standout variety.

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‘Leading Lady Plum’ Monarda next to ‘Heart Atttack’ Dianthus

The “flower quotient”, a term I use for the relative size of the flower to the size of the foliage, is greater than most flowers. When a Bee Balm blooms, it is stunning, unusual, and one that stops visitors in their tracks.

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Nymph Grasshopper hanging out on a Bee Balm Flower

The red variety is commonly known as Oswego Tea. Used by colonists in place of English tea after the Boston Tea Party, when they threw the English tea in the harbor to protest high taxes. Bee Balm continued for years as a medicinal and enjoyable tea and was frequently planted next to colonists homes for ease of gathering. To make your own tea, just air dry some leaves and steep them in hot water.

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Red Bee Balm or Monarda makes Oswego Tea

Coming in an array of colors and sizes, you can find a Bee Balm for any size garden now, some even fitting nicely into containers. Hybridizers have been busy with this plant and every time I go to the nursery, I see another small variety pop up. “Small” is the key word here; Most plants being developed now have a shorter stature and larger more colorful flowers to appeal to gardeners with limited space gardens or containers.

DSCN2013
‘Pardon My Pink’ Bee Balm

Because of the diminutive size of the new varieties, I tuck them in when I have a bare spot in the garden. Enjoying some shade in the afternoon in hot climates, these workhorses will bloom their little hearts out-usually lasting for 2 months or more if you dead head. The larger varieties can spread aggressively and should be controlled before they encroach and overtake other perennials.

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‘Balmy Pink’ Monarda fits in small spaces

Prone to downy mildew which can mottle the leaves, the newer varieties are more resistant to this disfiguring but not fatal disease.

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Wild Bergamot, Monarda fistulosa, isn’t as showy but still a great plant for pollinators
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An old-fashioned variety ‘Prairie Night’

Mexican Sunflower-Butterfly Favorite

If anyone ever asks me what flower draws the most butterflies to my garden, I don’t hesitate to say- Mexican Sunflower. Tithonia rotundifolia ‘Torch’,  attracts beneficial insects such as hover flies and minute pirate bugs, and of course- butterflies. This coarse textured plant grows up to seven feet high in my veggie garden and meadow and is sure to draw all the butterflies around, especially Monarchs. Better than sunflowers which flowers for a short period, Tithonia bears dozens of flowers at a time and lasts all summer.

A battered skipper butterfly hanging on visits my Tithonia

If you are Monarch watching, you must plant at least one of these handsome plants. Hoards of monarchs will visit while it is blooming for at least 3 months solid.

Butterfly on tithonia

Easily grown from seed sown outside after frost stops, the plants shoot up quickly to tower over everything surrounding it, so I make sure to place a rebar stake next to it when it gets a few feet high. Rebar or another sturdy stake is needed as the plant can be quite heavy, laden with all those beautiful flowers. Loving heat and sun, be sure to plant them in full sun or just a little bit of shade,  or the plant will not bloom as well and will get rangy looking.

The felted leaves are ruffled on the edges

Drought tolerant, even hating too much water, these plants are so easily grown, that I am always surprised more people don’t grow them. Yes, they can get quite tall (7 feet), but there is a new variety, called ‘Goldfinger’ that only gets four feet tall and I am growing it this summer for the first time to see if I like it as much. I am wondering if it blossoms so profusely as the tall one? Descriptions say it will, but I hold judgement until I grow and experience it.

The blossoms are about 4 inches across 

The flowers are held high above the foliage with the center quite open and accessible for butterflies, and that is why they flock to it. Bees and other pollinators love it also, but especially the butterflies. Check out my post on ‘Butterflying‘  or ‘Plant These For Bees’ for more information on attracting these beautiful pollinators to your garden.

The dried flower centers are also attractive and Goldfinches pick out the seeds

Since the plants grow so tall, be sure to stake it. If you don’t, the first wind storm you have, the plant will break and fall to the ground.

Since one plant can take up a good bit of room, I plant it in my veggie garden

Why You should Grow Tithonia

  • Long bloom period
  • Tall plants make it easy to see and photograph
  • Attracts flocks of migrating Monarchs
  • Easy to start from seed
  • No serious pest or disease issues
  • Attracts a wide variety of pollinators
  • Tolerates low water conditions
  • Mixes well with other lower growing plants, like Cosmos and Zinnias
  • Good for flower arranging
  • Spent seed heads attract birds
Cosmos surrounds this Tithonia
Swallowtail drinks from a tithonia

Available at Renee’s Garden Seeds.

Blueberry Bonanza

Blueberries are the ultimate fruit bearing shrub for people who want to make the most use of planting shrubs for beauty, but will also produce a tasty and healthy treat.

You can buy a blueberry bush anywhere for around $25

Easy to grow and integrate into an established garden, blueberries are attractive shrubs in their own right, that people really don’t think of using when planning their landscape. Easy to fit into a small landscape, blueberries exhibit wonderful fall color as well as being attractive shrubs the rest of the year, especially in the fall when they turn  a spectacular red color as the days turn cooler.  An unexpected source of fall color for most people, and a great provider of breakfast blueberries-what’s not to love?

There is nothing like fresh picked blueberries for breakfast

A half dozen blueberry bushes are planted in the high shade of large trees on my property, and I amended the soil with plenty of moistened peat moss. Planting the shrubs about five feet apart gives them enough growing space. If you plant them in the landscape as a shrub accent in a flower bed, you can group them a little closer for a bigger impact.  I find that deer leave the shrubs alone but will browse on the ripe berries, as well as birds. Bird netting set up over a framework of PVC pipe keeps the berries going into your pies instead of feeding the wildlife. But if you plant enough bushes, you will have enough for the wildlife as well as yourself.

Blueberries used in the landscape can screen utilities

Plant as early in the spring as possible is best, though I have been quite successful planting them later in the spring and into the summer. Resistant to most pest and diseases, I have been growing my blueberries for over 25 years with bushes that keep on producing plump juicy berries.  Offering scarlet fall foliage and pale-yellow bell-shaped spring flowers, my honey bees flock to gather nectar and pollen from them, and is one of the reasons I grow them.

The flowers are creamy yellow and bell-like

 

Steps for Planting

  1. Select a spot in full sun or partial shade.
  2. Test your soil pH by digging a small sample and take to a nearby nursery to have tested. The soil pH should be optimally between 4 and 5. To acidify your soil or to lower the pH, mix a small amount of granulated sulfur into the soil several months before planting. Also mixing organic materials such as peat moss, pine bark, leaf mold, aged sawdust, and pine needles into the soil will help acidify your soil and lower the pH before planting.
  3. Buy a blueberry bush that is at least one year old or older to get a head start on bearing.
  4. Dig hole about twice as wide and deep as the root ball and add some loamy soil and compost to the hole.
  5. Place the shrub at the same level as the pot into the hole and back fill with soil and pack firmly.
  6. Water thoroughly.
  7. About one month after planting, fertilize with a general 10-10-10 granular fertilizer or a liquid fertilizer like fish emulsion.
  8. Blueberries are self-pollinating but will grow larger fruit through cross-pollination with a companion bush.

Harvesting

Blueberries are one of the easiest plants to harvest with very little effort. The berries are held upright on small shrubs so are easy to reach with little bending over, unlike strawberries and raspberries. It is important to wait until the berry ripens completely with a rich blue color all around as the berries will not ripen any further after you pick them.  The berry will reach its full flavor and aroma a few days after the blue color appears.

Wait until the berries are deep purple before picking

Hanging an old cut off gallon milk jug around my neck, which frees both hands to pick, is the most efficient way.

Using an old milk jug with the neck cut off and a shoestring to hang it, is the best way to pick hands free

The berries ripen over several weeks, so my harvest is spread out and I enjoy them on cereal and pancakes for about a month in late June and early July. My excess berries are washed, spread out to dry, and packed into freezer baggies for future use.

Freezing my berries for later use
Weighing my berries

Container Growing

People are quite successful growing blueberries in large containers. Use the same soil mix as above and use a large enough container that the plant can grow, but that you can also move around if needed. Overwinter the container by wrapping burlap or straw around the plant and placing in a protected location from winds. Successful blueberry growing though, is having the right soil mix with plenty of peat moss added, in a container or in the ground.

A plentiful harvest

Pruning 

When your bushes get older, at least 4-5 years old, it is time to start pruning to keep them producing each year. The berries are produced on newer canes, so the best strategy is to remove older and diseased canes as well as crossing branches with a sharp pruner. Then trim the rest of the longer arching branches back by about 1/4 to 1/3. The goal when pruning is to achieve a narrow base and open top that allows sunlight to penetrate and good air circulation. The best time to do this is late winter while the bushes are dormant, and it is easy to see the structure.  To ensure plentiful harvests, you should continue to do this every year. For a great description and diagram, go to Ohio State Extension Service.

Pine straw is the best mulch for blueberries

Hairy Balls Milkweed

I love arranging with “Hairy Balls” for a unique centerpiece
Hairy Balls starting to form tennis ball size  pods

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.

Hairy Balls in full glory

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
The single flowers are pendulous instead of a large ball of flowers in the common Milkweed

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.

You can see the white substance on the pod at the bottom which is why these plants are called Milkweed

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.

The ripe balls turn tan and burst open with seeds

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.

The flowers are not showy
The nondescript flowers start forming pods in September
Split a hairy Ball open and you will find hundreds of seeds

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 Milkweeds 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. 

Common Milkweed has very different flowers and pods
Common Milkweed have long narrow pods

Starting From Seed

I start my Hairy Balls from seed inside around mid-March to get a head start. The plants take a long time to form their wonderful seed capsules and I usually harvest from August on as they form.

To plant, I separate the brown seeds from the fuzzy fibers

Plant the seeds in good potting medium and cover about 1/4″ deep and the plants emerge in about 10 days. I keep them in the greenhouse until they reach about 4-5 inches high and the weather is warm enough- about the same time as tomatoes.

Hairy Ball seedlings about a month old: they need a few more weeks before setting out

Once they are growing well in the garden, I usually pinch them to make them a little bit fuller and bushier. But if you don’t do this step, they still will grow fine.

The plants of Hairy Balls Milkweed get about 4-5 feet tall

Death By Mulch

Piled up mulch around shrubs and trees can kill them slowly

“Mulch volcanoes” are a protective ring of mulch gone mad. Heaping cones of mulch packed around the trunk of trees and shrubs and pushed right up against the bark is deadly to the health of a tree or shrub. Bark is the tree’s outermost protective layer, and needs to be exposed to air. Moisture from constantly moist, piled up mulch softens bark causing it to be susceptible to several bad actors, including:

  • Wood-boring insects living in the mulch can tunnel through to the softened, partially-decomposing bark and gain easy-access to the greenwood or vascular tissues beneath the bark, introducing vectors of disease.
  • Diseases such as harmful fungal canker diseases (rots), bacterial attacks or virus diseases can more easily penetrate to the interior of the plant when the bark remains continually moist.
  • Critters such as mice and meadow voles can tunnel through the mulch and chew through the outer bark to reach the tasty living inner bark. This will cut off the flow of water up from the roots and nutrients down from the leaves, causing the plant to die.
  • Roots tend to migrate up toward the top of the mulch layer during rainy periods, only to dry out when summer drought sets in.
  • In times of drought, such a thick “volcano” of mulch a foot high can prevent rainfall or irrigation water from reaching the root system in an “umbrella” system, causing additional plant stress.

To rescue a tree from mulch death, go to this video on excavating a root collar:

Another mulch volcano
Try using shredded leaves for mulch
Instead of shredded tanbark, try pine straw for a more natural look
Pine straw mulch comes in bales and is shipped from North Carolina

Succulent Care and Design

Indoor Succulents

Plants are an easy way to add a little life and beauty to your home or office. But without the proper care, you may find yourself cycling through different varieties more frequently than you’d like. Thankfully, succulents are very easy to take care of and require very little to thrive.

An array of succulents

We’ve rounded up seven types of indoor succulents perfect for any skill level, including crown of thorns, aloe, jade, and Christmas cactus. Not sure where to start once you bring your succulents home? We’re here to help with simple tips—like how much and how often you should water—to keep your plants happy and healthy indoors. Check out the infographic below to learn more.

Succulents in hanging basket

Designing with Succulents Outside

Love this pink frilled Echeveria

Imagine this…..You love overflowing containers and window boxes, but hate to water and/or forget to water! Then, succulents are for you. The colors, textures, and shapes of the succulent world are so varied and colorful that you won’t ever miss your petunia containers. Window boxes in full sun are a snap to put together, especially if you go on vacation for a couple of weeks and don’t want to be tied to a watering regimen or install drip irrigation.

A window box full of succulents; seen at Ladew Gardens
Another window box planted in the spring: by summer, this will be overflowing with succulents

Don’t get me wrong. Succulents do require watering and will thrive if you supply it regularly while growing. But if you forget……they are very forgiving and will bounce right back.

This container with only one special succulent is perfect for the spot
Perfect little succulent container

Container Selection

When putting together a succulent creation, rethink everything you know about regular potted containers. The depth of the container can be very shallow as the root run of most succulents is small. They store all their water in their stems and leaves and don’t require a large root system. So, think of a shallow container like an old enameled wash tub with drainage holes or a table with a 2 inch deep cavity for plants. Don’t forget generous sized drainage holes.

Table with a 2 inch deep cavity for succulents

Even a tall succulent of three to four feet will have shallow roots of two to three inches below grade. So, for succulent containers, I look for heavy ceramic containers with a shallow draft, only about 6 inches or less deep.

My succulents in my greenhouse that I over-winter and plant out in containers in the spring

Succulents do flower, but are usually very different looking ones; this is a Stapelia or Starfish Flower
Lots of colors in succulents in this greenhouse

Thriller, Filler, & Spiller

This succulent container has a thriller, filler, and spiller

We’ve all heard the mantra of Thriller, Filler, & Spiller, and it applies to regular containers as well as succulent ones. I usually build the container around the thriller, the big upright that makes the container, and then choose the filler and spiller to complement it.

A fall succulent container with tiny pumpkins and lights

Soil Medium

The biggest mistake you can make with succulents is a heavy potting mix that hold too much water. Forget those succulent/cactus mixes that you see for sale at the nursery. They are too expensive and you can easily come up with your own for a fraction of the cost. Porous, well draining potting mix is so important to the success of your succulents, that I can’t over emphasize this. It is really easy for a succulent to rot in the home of an over zealous waterer!

  1.  3 parts good potting soil
  2.  2 parts coarse sand or turface or stone dust (turface is a calcine clay product used to improve drainage and reduce compactation and is available on Amazon); if you keep chickens, you can add poultry grit instead
  3.  1 part perlite
  4.  For top dressing, you can use gravel, pumice, or colored glass
Succulent container seen at Philadelphia Flower Show

Keep Them Happy

  • Let the soil medium dry between waterings (this depends on the heat and sun that the containers are receiving)
  • Keep them in full sun
  • Most succulents are frost tender, so only keep them out after frost is over for the spring and bring them in when cold (in the thirties) threatens
  • Plant succulents with other plants that require little water, like grasses or silver leaved perennials, such as Lambs Ears or Angel Wings
  • Elevate your containers with pot feet so that the water can drain quickly
  • To over winter your succulents, bring them in when frost threatens and keep them in your sunniest window and stop watering! I water them about once a month while inside during the winter when growth slows down to a crawl; slowly increase your watering as spring approaches

A great variety of texture in a container

Elevate your containers for good drainage