Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Pack it up Pack it in -- Squeeze more blooms into your garden with flowering vines

Grow Up! – Blooming vines for the garden

By Amy McDowell
   Heighten the drama in your garden with in-your-face blooming vines. For shady spots, plant silver lace vine or climbing hydrangea. For sun, plant clematis, wisteria or trumpet vine. If you are used to having flowers at your feet, you will soon be into flowers over your head as these climbers reach for the sky.
   Clematis is the star of the climbing show. Clematis needs full sun and a couple of annuals or perennials around the base to shade the ground around the root system. They come in all shades and combinations of red, purple, pink and white. By planting a variety, you can have blooms from May through September. Clematis does best on a wire trellis; the leaves and stems tendril around the trellis for support as they climb.
   Silver Lace Vine (Polygonum auberti) is a little-known vine that offers a gorgeous show. From a distance, it looks like a waterfall with masses of delicate draping white panicles of blooms. It will grow and bloom in shade. Silver lace vine grows quickly to 20 feet and blooms in August and September. It will climb anything except a flat vertical surface.
   Wisteria is a behemoth—no ordinary trellis or latticework will hold this woody monster. A solid arbor with 4 x 4 or 6 x 6 posts and a sturdy canopy will make a good home for wisteria. Only buy wisteria that is in bloom or has evidence of spent blooms on it. Some gardeners struggle for decades to get wisteria to bloom. If it is blooming when you buy it, you can trust it to rebloom faithfully in the garden each spring. Wisteria bloom lavender or white in May.
   Climbing Hydrangea take a season in the ground to get established before they really leap with new growth. Elegant flat white panicles of blooms appear in June and last for nearly six weeks. They have dark green glossy foliage and attractive bark during the winter months. Climbing hydrangea can grow to 60 feet and will adhere to any surface. Plant them in shade.
   Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans) is an aggressive and rampant grower. Plant one of these and you’ll forever find them running out from the base and sprouting up in the garden. Hummingbirds love their red, orange or yellow blooms. Trumpet vines need full sun and grow to 30 feet. They will climb anything, using aerial roots to grasp and adhere like glue on surfaces.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Viburnums will fill the void

Garden missing something? Fill the void with Viburnum.
By Amy McDowell
   “A garden without Viburnums is akin to life without music and art,” says world-renowned woody plant expert Michael Dirr.
   Vibrunums are native Iowa shrubs that have been long overlooked. They’re durable and trouble-free with foliage that varies from glossy smooth to woolly rough. Their blooms in May and June are primarily white, although some are light pink or have pink buds. Blossoms are followed by edible berries that not only help feed birds through the winter, but make tasty jellies and preserves. Fall color is primarily deep red but V. dentatum, V. opulus, V. sargentii and V. trilobum also turn yellow or orange.
   Choosing Viburnums is challenging because there are 225 species and almost all have some desirable attributes. I’m showcasing a few here that make outstanding contributions to central Iowa gardens.
   V. cassinoides has beautiful blooms, chameleon-like berries and glossy foliage that turns a heart-throbbing deep burgundy in the fall. Tiny pistils protruding from the center of each blossom make the white flower clusters look fuzzy. The berries begin greenish white and turn pale pink, darken until they’re red, change to blue and finally age to black. It’s not unusual to see different colored berries creating vivid contrast in the same cluster. V. cassinoides generally grows to about 6 feet tall and wide with a rare 15-foot potential.
   A couple of taller Viburnums such as V. prunifolium and V. sieboldii can be pruned into shapely tree forms and used to anchor perennial gardens. V. prunifolium (nicknamed Blackhaw) flowers in late May. Berries begin pink and age to blue-black. Fall color is bronze to red, and this Viburnum grows 12 to 15 feet tall and 8 to 12 feet wide. As for V. sieboldii, the shiny dark green foliage doesn’t usually turn to anything special in the fall, but it is smothered with white flower clusters in June. The showy fruit begins rosey pink and turns to red, then black. V. sieboldii matures to about 15 to 20 feet high and 10 to 15 feet wide.
   V. dilatatum is nicknamed Linden Viburnum, supposedly because the foliage resembles that of the linden tree (Tilia species), although I don’t see a striking resemblence. Broad 3- to 5-inch clusters of blooms are abundant in early June and red or yellow berries (depending on cultivar) create a dazzling fall show. The fruit is a last resort for birds, who wait to eat the shriveled berries in February and March when other food sources have been depleted. I’ve even read that the berries are fermented enough by late winter that the birds can actually become intoxicated from eating them!
   Several varieties, including V. x burkwoodii, V. x carlcephalum, V. carlesii, V. ferreri, V. x juddii and V. x pragense, have fragrant flowers. In recent years, breeders have introduced white- or yellow-variegated V. lantanas and a yellow-foliaged V. opulus.
   This is just a sample of the bounteous choices. If your garden is missing something, try a Viburnum to fill the void.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Scent in the garden

Fragrance in the Garden

By Amy McDowell
   Gardening is a full-immersion hobby. Unlike reading or watching television, gardening tantalizes all five senses—from the soothing sight of a leaf unfurling and the sound of birds singing to the taste of tangy tomatoes and the sting of a rose thorn—our senses tingle to life when in the garden. And the fragrance! Thousands of plants scent the air, not to enchant our noses but to attract pollinators. We might as well admit it; their sex scents seduce us, as well.
   If you’d like to add fragrant plants to your garden, consider the following list.
Aromatic Annuals – Garden centers offer ready-to-plant packs of these scented annuals: Alyssum, snapdragons, Nicotiana and Viola. Also look for larger pots of Heliotrope and scented geranium (Pelargonium). Sow seeds of the following annuals directly into the ground: Datura, Nasturtium, four o’clocks and sweet peas.
Tantalizing Tropicals – Expand your repertoire to include tropical plants that easily overwinter indoors. Brugmansia, Jasmine, Gardenia, Stephanotis, night-blooming Cereus and citrus plants top the list.
Perfumed Perennials – These guys will return year after year to scent your garden: Achillea, Allium, Candytuft (Iberis), Hosta, Iris, Lily of the Valley, Monarda, Peony and Scabiosa. Although butterfly bush (Buddleia) is a woody plant, it frequently dies back to the ground during our winters, so it’s a good idea to mentally place it into the perennial category.
Scented Shrubs – Lilacs come to mind first because they are blooming right now, but the long list of fragrant shrubs offers generous choices. Consider Roses, Caryopteris, allspice (Calycanthus), Clethra, Daphne, Mock Orange (Philadelphus) and Viburnum. In addition, a couple of fragrant Forsythia varieties can kick your spring off with scent including F. geraldiana and F. ovata. For Viburnum, look for V. x burkwoodii, V. x carlcephalum, V. carlesii, V. fragrans and V. x juddii.
Fragrant Trees – Thousands of scent-free Crabapples on the market have led us to believe they are not fragrant. But look for Malus sargentii, M. coronaria, M. hupehensis and M. transitoria ‘Golden Raindrops’. Other scented trees include fringe tree (Chionanthus), snowdrop (Halesia), golden chain tree (Laburnum), Magnolia and Pine.
Voluptuous Vines – In addition to the tropical vines listed above, there are few winter-hardy vines, including climbing roses, Wisteria and honeysuckle (Lonicera).
   Finally, a word of caution: not all plants are pollinated by bees, butterflies and birds. Some, like the Hawthorn tree (Crataegus crusgalli) are pollinated by flies. And what scent attracts flies? You got it—rotten meat.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

It's ALIVE! Soil and Mycorrhiza

Mighty Mycorrhiza – Super soil staple or snake oil scam?

By Amy McDowell
   Promises, promises. We’ve all heard advertisements making promises about some amazing new product and what it can do for our homes, our lives, our gardens. A healthy spirit of skepticism has become part of our nature.
   So what is the scoop on mycorrhiza? At least 25 mycorrhiza products are available in garden centers across the U.S.—oddly named products like Myke and Myco Stim to name just a couple. What are these products, and what will they do for your garden?
   Mycorrhiza is a beneficial relationship between plants and fungus. “Mycorrhiza is a natural part of the soil and a part of plant nutrient uptake,” writes Ted St. John, Ph.D. in The Instant Expert Guide to Mycorrhiza, 2000. “The fungi are the dominant soil microorganisms, and soil biology depends heavily upon the presence, density, and types of mycorrhizal fungi.”
   Mycorrhizal fungi are easily destroyed when the plants are removed and the soil disturbed. “They are always missing from freshly graded sites,” St. John writes.
   Adding mycorrhizal fungi spores to your soil (called inoculating) will not necessarily produce big, robust plants, as many of the products claim. Being familiar with soil biology, I was thrilled when companies began packaging micorrhizae for home gardeners. In recent years I’ve tried several of the products in my garden without noticeable results. Although there are greenhouse and field studies that show amazing differences in plant growth, I’ve learned that it’s unlikely that you would notice differences like that in a trial in your own garden.
   “Plant growth response in itself is not likely to tell the story. If uninocculated plots have been kept healthy by fertilization, any mycorrhizal effects will have been masked,” St. John writes.
   Realistically, you can expect inoculated plants to be stronger, better able to survive harsh weather conditions, and protected from disease. Your site will be more resistant to invasion by weeds and most important, mycorrhiza will improve soil structure.
   St. John recommends looking for a “propagule” or spore count on the label so you know what you are getting for your money. Mix the micorrhiza product with seeds as you sow or apply it to all sides of the root ball as you put plants in the ground. You can sprinkle mycorrhizae over the surface of the soil or till it in, but it doesn’t begin working until it connects with live plant roots.
   Although he warns gardeners to be wary of hype and exaggerated claims, St. John solidly backs mycorrhiza as beneficial for gardens. “What is very clear, from every study that has done the tests, is that inoculation is greatly superior to no inoculation,” he writes.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Hug a Tree

A Gardener’s Refuge
By Amy McDowell
   “Sometimes I walk into my front yard and I can feel all my trees just vibrating love.” --Oprah Winfrey.
   I was delighted to read that, for I have felt that same powerful energy emanating from trees. It’s like a buzzing in the air that you can only sense when you are alone and your soul is quiet and peaceful.
   Once while I was attending a horticulture conference, a speaker told the crowd—perhaps 700 of us—to go home and hug a tree. My first reaction was a light smile, and then a lift of my eyebrows when the speaker told us he was not joking. Seriously, he said, hug a tree.
   Determined but feeling bashful, I waited until the next day. Although my back yard was pretty well isolated from the neighbors, I stepped out timidly and glanced around. A gorgeous white oak was the closest. I looked up to the canopy of branches and my breathing slowed. I felt a deep, sincere reverence for all living things and the fantastic energy that connects us all.
   Touching the rough bark, I wondered whether the tree sensed my presence. I know that it did. Reaching my arms around, I hugged the tree and rested the side of my face on the trunk. Tears of emotion surged suddenly and crested at the edges of my lower eyelids. I released the tree and took a step back, breathing deeply. It seemed my slow breaths drew not just oxygen, but a quiet energy into my soul.
   I urge you to go outside and hug a tree. Shrug off those trivial “I feel silly” thoughts and instead think about yourself and the tree. Try to take in the reach of that tree—its branches extending into the heavens, and its roots stretching out from the trunk to a distance two and a half times the height of the canopy.
   Gardening is about recognizing our alliances with all things. Abandon your fantasies of gaining control and welcome a new harmony into your garden.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Build a pondless water feature

Burbling Water in the Garden

Six simple steps to a pondless water feature
for less than $50
By Amy McDowell
      Water features add motion and sound to the garden, drawing both people and wildlife. The garden pond’s wave of popularity in the past decade makes the old standby water feature—the birdbath—unexciting and stale. Birdbaths add an architectural element to the garden, but the stagnant water evaporates so quickly that it’s hard to think of them as a true water feature.
   With little more effort and expanse than a birdbath, you can add a water feature with moving water and a large reservoir that won’t run dry quickly. It is a ground-level feature with water burbling over a pile of rocks. The materials cost less than $50, assembly takes just a couple of hours, and birds will love it.

   18-inch round plastic tub
   21-inch round metal grill
   Small submersible pond or fountain pump
   2-foot rubber tubing or PVC pipe
   Safe outdoor electrical source
   2-3 dozen rocks, fist-size and smaller

Six simple steps:
1-      Dig a hole large enough to bury the plastic tub up to its rim. Set the tub inside and backfill with soil around the outside.
2-      Set the pump in the center of the tub, using rocks to keep it upright if necessary. Run the cord to a safe electrical source, but don’t plug it in yet.
3-      Connect the tubing or pipe to the pump’s discharge so it rises straight up in the center of the tub to a point several inches above the rim.
4-      Place the metal grill on top of the tub with the tubing running up through the center of the grill. Bend the bars in the center of the grill if necessary.
5-      Stack rocks on top of the grill, concealing the empty tub below, the tubing and the grill. The rocks will be higher in the center and taper off to ground level at the edges.
6-      Fill the tub with water and plug in the pump. Rearrange the rocks so the water burbles over them.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Keeping a Garden Journal

The invaluable garden journal
By Amy McDowell
   My garden adventures—all of them—are documented.  Even the time I accidentally splattered myself with the slimy guts of two dozen plump four-inch tomato hornworms. Eew. Yes, it was gross.  Gardening is messy, but I learn things all the time.
   I record everything in my garden journal. I now have about fifteen years’ worth of helpful and humorous lessons documented. I wrote about waiting three years for the first bloom on my fragrant bourbon rose, finding a baby deer in the woods behind my home, and the thrill of seeing a dog-tooth violet bloom for the first time. There are crazy and delightful stories like the time masses of praying mantis hatched in my car when I left two egg casings on the warm dashboard. I have a record of the time a ground squirrel nearly drowned in the whisky barrel and the time a raccoon was trapped under the heavy bowl of the large antique bird bath after he accidentally tipped it over on himself. I documented every deer sighting, hawk sighting, and screech owl.
   My journals include recipes for homemade hummingbird nectar, deer repellent, insect spray, and even rooting hormone. I sketch and chronicle ideas I have tried, such as the homemade scent dispensers for fox urine to repel rabbits, and I jot down ideas that I have seen in other gardens, such as using cardboard boxes for rose cones.
   The practical side of a garden journal is to record the botanical and common names of new plants I put in. I sketch where I planted them, and sometimes even document where I bought them and how much I paid. Sometimes they grow beautifully, and other times they die off. It is helpful to read through old garden journals and remember the successes and failures.
   My journals are an invaluable archive of my joys and blunders in the garden. My lesson about hornworms is that when you go about ferociously plucking them from a datura and stomping them to goo with your right foot, the guts will spurt far and wide—all over your left leg. Later you will look down and wonder, “What is this green crusty stuff all over my pants? – Oh, sick!”