Hairy Balls & Pollinators

I love arranging with “Hairy Balls” for a unique centerpiece
The single flowers are pendulous instead of a large ball of flowers like the common Milkweed

Visitors looking over my garden in the fall, always ask what the strange-looking plant is that is forming large spiny 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 keeps 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

Monarchs!

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. But be aware in colder climates, you need to start the seeds early.

The ripe balls turn tan and burst open with seeds
The flowers are not showy

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. I love watching the pods form!

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.

Starting Hairy Balls in my greenhouse
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 balls turn a tan color when mature

When cutting the stems to use in arrangements, I torch the ends with my propane torch (or use matches) to stem the flow of milky sap.

Pumpkin On a Stick

Use pumpkin on a stick in fall displays

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.

Pumpkin on a Stick seed packet at Botanical Interests

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.

Bed of Nails

Culture

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.

Started from seed in my greenhouse, by early spring, the plants (with stakes) grow quickly and are ready to plant in the garden as soon as we are frost free
Pumpkin on a Stick growing in my veggie garden has thorns and can get tall (3-4 ft tall)

Harvesting

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.

Cutting my pumpkin on a stick plants
Remove all the leaves and hang to dry
Available in the fall at trader Joe’s

Pumpkin on a stick at the wholesale florist
Pumpkin on a Stick used in a seasonal arrangement

Autumn Crocus-Fall Super Star

A bulb that blooms in the fall? I get a lot of puzzled looks when I try to explain Autumn Crocus or Meadow saffron. Not really a crocus, but actually in the lily family, it resembles the spring flowering crocus but the flowers are larger and chalice-shaped instead of stiffly upright.

Purple Autumn Crocus  Colchicum atropurpureum

The similarity to a crocus leads to many confused people who see it and think it is a crocus out of sync, and blooming in the wrong season. An under-used bulb, Autumn Crocus deserves more recognition.

My Autumn Crocus is blooming with my heucheras

Many of my photos in this post were taken in September in Scotland, as you rarely see them grown here. But they can be grown quite successfully here, just as well as the UK, and I have grown them here in the mid-Atlantic for years.

Naturalized in the lawn in Scotland

Originating in Europe, its life cycle is quite unusual. Appearing in Autumn popping out of the ground like magic almost overnight, you forget that you have planted it, and then when it appears, you are quite excited. Appearing without any foliage, it is all flower with no obscuring leaves and is quite beautiful in garden beds or naturalized in the lawn.

Popping up in the lawn

Blooms lasting for 2 to 3 weeks and then lying dormant until the following spring, foot-long strappy leaves appear and remain until early summer. They can get tattered and ugly looking and I just snap them off and forget about them. After summer hibernation, the Autumn Crocus bloom emerges in a profusion of multi-petalled flowers for a show of color, when not much is happening in the garden, and you are hungry for some color. Fitting in quite well with the asters and chrysanthemums of the fall garden, they also come up the same time as fall cyclamens, another adorable fall blooming corm.

Autumn Crocus blooming with Fall Cyclamen at Falkland Palace in Scotland
Plant them where they can peek out under shrubs
Sometimes the corm pops out of the ground and I just push it back in while flowering

Easy as Pie to Grow

Developing from a corm (small bulb), you plant them in late summer or early fall about 2-3 inches deep in full sun to partial shade. The delicate flowers should be protected from wind, so I grow them among shrubs and perennials. Maintenance free, there are several varieties of Autumn Crocus in white, dark purple, and lavender pink. ‘Waterlily’ is a lovely mauve lilac with double petals.

Waterlily Colchicum

Downside

The only downside to this bulb is price. They can set you back from $4 to $8 a bulb depending on supplier and variety. The doubles like ‘Waterlily’ are always more expensive. But I have invested in buying half a dozen a season now, and have a nice little stand of them as they multiply quite readily. And did I mention that deer and bunnies rarely bother them? Another reason to order some for planting this fall.

Varieties

Violet flowering ‘Autumn Queen’ ‘Giant’ with white and mauve blooms

‘Waterlily’ with unique lilac double petals

“Lilac Wonder’ with lilac pink blooms Purplish mauve

‘Violet Queen’ with a white center

‘Albus’ a pure white

Colchicum Albus

Saffron Crocus

The stigmas (orange filaments)are dried for saffron

Saffron Crocus (Crocus sativus), another fall Crocus, creates jewel-toned flowers in the fall garden in only 6-10 weeks (sometimes as little as 4-6 weeks) after being planted.  Planted in zones 6-10, you can plant them in your garden beds, in containers, or even indoors. Harvesting the orange fuzzy stigmas of the saffron crocus is easy and you just snip them off and dry them on paper towels and use in your favorite dishes.

The ultimate saffron dish-paella!

When To Plant Saffron Crocus Bulbs

Make sure to plant Saffron Crocus bulbs at least 6 weeks before chance of frost. The bulbs (corms) don’t store well and should be planted soon after you receive them. I just planted mine in the garden and expect to harvest the saffron threads in a couple of weeks.

Buying bulbs of Saffron Crocus

If mulched well, Saffron Crocus can be winter hardy to USDA zone 6.

The Saffron Crocus does well in dappled shade
Saffron Crocus is a lovely lavender shade

 

 

Indian Pink: Under-Used Native Perennial

Flying under the radar for many people, Indian Pink, or Spigelia marilandica is coming into its own. A long-lived perennial that brings stunning colors to the summer garden, hummingbirds flock to these red and yellow tubular flowers arranged in clusters. Similar to firecrackers exploding in the garden, this unique flower stops people in their tracks when they see it in my garden.

Spigelia looks a little like firecrackers
Well grown clump of Indian Pink

Flowering in early summer, and then sporadically through the remainder of the growing season, Indian Pinks are highly sought after at perennial nurseries and they have trouble keeping them in stock. In fact many of the nurseries I talked to ship them to British clients instead of US, because they are mad for them! A southeastern US native hardy to zone 5b, it has been planted as a novelty, but is now reaching mainstream status.

A great companion to ferns

Emerging in the spring, the plant can grow quickly to hold more than 75 of those colorful tubular (perfect for hummers) flowers that catch your eye as soon as you look at the garden.

The combination of yellow and red is striking
The common name of Indian Pink refers to its medicinal properties. The dried roots are used as a hallucinogen and a de-wormer, nothing to fool around with! Use it horticulturally and not medicinally.
I grow my spigelia in mostly full sun, though all the culture information I see on line is that it liked partial shade to shade. I have grown it for about 5 years in full sun and have been very successful with it. The ones that I planted in partial shade haven’t been as floriferous.
Planted in shade, the flowers don’t make a great show
Highly sought after by wildflower enthusiasts, I think that everyone should include this great native in their garden to attract butterflies and hummingbirds. A new cultivar called ‘Little Redhead’ is now available which is reported to be much more compact and packed with flowers. I need to seek it out!

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”

Ano

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.

P1040869
‘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.

P1040496
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.

P1050304
‘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.

DSCN4789
Wild Bergamot, Monarda fistulosa, isn’t as showy but still a great plant for pollinators
P1050588
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.

Top 12 Cut Flowers

One of the main reasons that I grow flowers in my garden is for the fresh cut flowers. Blooms to bring in by the arm load and arrange in buckets and vases, is the reason that I slave hours in the garden.

Buying fresh cuts from a florist or grocery store isn’t the same as bringing in blooms that are decorating my garden with fragrance and color. Regretting removing those blooms from my garden isn’t an issue when I can enjoy it for many more hours up close and personal in the privacy of my home.

Poppies are planted early in my cutting garden
Planting out my cutting garden in the spring

To get the best of both worlds – a beautiful garden along with beautifully arranged vases – I always designate a special area a ‘cutting garden’. Expanding year by year as I discover just another flower that is perfect for cutting, it has encroached on my vegetable garden. Less veggies-more flowers!

Blocks of flowers in a cutting garden; mesh netting supports the stems
I grow so many dahlias, I arrange them in bowls

But what defines a good cut flower?- Simply put: long bloom times, tall sturdy stems, and ample vase life.

Zinnias, Amni majus, and Bells of Ireland
Peegee hydrangea with ‘Henry Eilers’ Rudbeckia, and Chelone

Garden-to-Vase 

Growing specialty cut flowers for me ranges from crowd favorites like peonies and dahlias, to more obscure varieties rarely seen at a local florist, like ‘Love in the Mist’, is both a money saver and a little bit of luck. Starting many of these varieties from seed can be tricky, and some years I have a bumper crop, and other years, I bomb. Gardening is not an exact science and the more I experiment, I find that there is always more to discover.

Planting seedling plugs at Great Dixter, UK

Growing my own source of private bouquets is something I will be doing as long as I have a  garden, as I crave fresh flowers in my house and I don’t want to rely on the florist. My vegetable garden is about 50% flowers now!

Allliums and coneflowers
Growing cutting flowers for drying

Not only do I use my fresh cuts for arranging, I also dry a bunch of them for use in the Fall and Winter. See Dried Flowers for ideas.

My Top Twelve List of Fresh Cuts

  1. Ageratum houstonianum ‘Blue Horizon’ or ‘Dondo Blue’
  2. Larkspur-comes in pink, blue and white and gives a great vertical accent to your arrangements
  3. Poppies-comes in a rainbow of colors and my bees like them; go to Poppy Love
  4. Zinnias-all kinds, but I especially love the cactus varieties
  5. Sunflowers-forget the mammoth ones (too large), but the different colored varieties with branching stems are my favorites like ‘Valentine’
  6. Dahlias-for late season interest, these are perfect! For my post on Dahlias, go to Dahlias – Divas of the Garden
  7. Lilies-Oriental and Asiatic, not daylilies as these only last a day
  8. Love in the Mist– not only beautiful flowers, but beautiful foliage and dried seed heads
  9. Peonies-a flash in the pan and they are gone, but I indulge in them when in season
  10. Tulips-forget these if you have deer; wonderful form and they grow in fantastic shapes in the vase
  11. Bishops Flower(Amni majus)-looks like a Queen Anne’s Lace on steroids
  12. Alliums-long lasting statements that make good focal flowers; go to my post on Alliums-All Season Long.
Alliums are easy to grow and deer resistant
My purple alliums with the purple obelisk
Love in a Mist
Dried seeds heads of Love in a Mist
Bishops flower
Lavender blue of ‘Blue Horizon’ ageratum
Ageratum, Sunflowers, and Dahlias in an arrangement
Cosmos with its ferny foliage is a great cut flower, seen at Falkland Palace, Scotland
Masses of sunflowers ready for cutting, seen at Falkland Palace, Scotland

Out of Season

When summer is over that doesn’t mean I don’t have plant material in the house. Transitioning to colorful berries, leaves, and branches takes me into the holiday season. After that, I bring in evergreens, cones, and branches, until flowers appear again in the spring.

Fall arrangement with berries and branches in a bowl

Placement

Deciding on a place for your cut flowers is a personal decision, but you have to have lots of sun. Growing flowers in my vegetable garden which gets the most amount of sun on my property makes sense for me. Most of my other beds are full of perennials and evergreens, and shrubs, so I usually don’t have room for them in my garden beds. I will plant early bloomers, like poppies, larkspur, and cornflowers in areas that will hold late appearing perennials, like hostas. By the time the hostas are up, the early bloomers are just about done and I can remove them.

Red and white tulips-great for cutting
Rows of flowers in a vegetable garden (not mine!)

Allow enough room to maneuver around the blocks or rows for watering, weeding, and picking. I plant in blocks about 3 feet wide for good access and air flow.

Bouquet of dahlias from my garden
My veggie garden serves also as my cutting garden

Starting some seeds inside and others like Zinnias outside, I start about two dozen varieties each year. Some years I have a bumper crop of something that has done especially well, I just can’t predict what will be blooming in my garden.

Starting seeds under grow lights gets me a jump on the season

For cool season flowers like Larkspur, Bells of Ireland, Poppies, Love in the Mist, and Cornflower, go to Cool Flowers.

Bells of Ireland are a great cut flower

Pink cornflower
I

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

Winter Blues-Blue Poppy Envy

  Blue poppy

Only on display at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania for two to three weeks, the Himalayan Blue Poppies are stunners and considered a rare garden treasure. Almost extinct in their native habitat of Bhutan, photographers flock to Longwood to capture some photos of these amazingly true blue spectacles.  Sporting deep sky blue crepey petals with mauve highlights and a ring of golden stamens and anthers, the plant is much sought after to add to gardens.

blue poppy

Unfortunately, in North America it can only be grown in Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, and parts of New England successfully. Meconopsis grandis is the national flower of Bhutan, a country high up in the Himalayas, above 10,000 feet, and wants cool, cool temperatures, like 45 to 50 degrees F. The conservatory at Longwood Gardens is certainly warmer than this so the flower is fleeting in its beauty.

Photo courtesy of Longwood Gardens
The Winter Blues Festival is all about blue flowers at Longwood until March 25
Blue hydrangeas and white orchid balls decorate the conservatory at Longwood Gardens
Pride-of -Madeira, Echium candicans is part of the display
One last petal hanging on
One last petal hanging on

Once considered a myth and brought back to the west by plant hunters, the Blue Poppy is a challenge to grow for the most experienced gardeners and a mark of distinction for any gardener succeeding in its cultivation.

On the cusp of opening
On the cusp of opening

Requiring moist and cool conditions, Longwood Gardens, one of the few places to see them, forces the variety Meconopsis ‘Lingholm’ into bloom every March and increases their number each year because of their popularity.

Thousands of pots of Blue Poppies at Longwood Gardens in the production greenhouse, photo courtesy of Longwood Gardens

blue poppy
Photo courtesy of Pam Corckran

Drawing large numbers of people, especially photographers getting that perfect shot, the colors are unbelievable-saturated blues with streaks of mauve plum tones- on a large 4-5 inch flower.

Showing mauve highlights is a sign of stress
Showing mauve highlights is a sign of stress

A shade of blue rarely seen in other flowers,  the foliage is also stunning with grass-green hairy stems and leaves. Longwood Gardens gets their Blue Poppy plants shipped to them from an Alaska grower in the fall and they grow them in perfectly controlled greenhouse conditions to force them into bloom for display in the spring. Longwood has two different batches that it refreshes the flowers with so they can extend the brief bloom time for visitors.

Blue poppy

Growing in the warm clime of the conservatory, the mauve highlights were evidence as a sign of stress. The ephemeral quality of their blooms is part of their attraction and charm and visitors flock to see them.

blue poppy

Demanding a rich loamy well draining soil in partial sun in cool conditions is the primary ingredient to successfully growing this garden gem. Way too hot in my mid-Atlantic climate, I get to photograph them and enjoy them at Longwood Gardens in the spring. For more information on how to grow them if you are in a better suited climate than mine, go to Himalayan Blue Poppy Care.

Every year at Longwood ,the Blue Poppies are used in different areas of the Conservatory

blue poppy
Photo courtesy of Pam Corckran

For my post on growing cool season poppies, go to Cool Season Plants  or Poppy Love. To see the famed Blue Poppies, go to Longwood Gardens by the end of March.

 

It is a double treat at Longwood with the Orchid Extravaganza
Blue and white at Longwood Gardens