Bits and Pieces and In-Between

I think I have entered that part of the season that I call “in-between.” Summer is coming to a close and Autumn is not really here yet. In the southern part of the United States, it is still very humid and hot! Our little ones are going back to school and fall clothes are still packed away, waiting for chilly weather.

In the garden, it’s a little like the end of a school play. Everyone has witnessed the drama and now everyone is standing around with a cup of punch and a cookie, waiting to go home.

A lot of my perennials have bloomed like mad and are now waning. Flowering trees have done their thing and are setting fruit. Due to the large amounts of rain this summer, some of my annuals didn’t get deadheaded properly, so they are underperforming. Weeds are unfortunately prolific, also due to the ongoing wet weather.

But…there are some interesting things going on.

My lemon grass grew to a huge size. The pictures below are of when I first bought it and today, respectively. I also made sure to use the exact same pencil for scale. I was warned that at the end of a season it could approach the size of a Volkswagen. I was unhappy with the taste of it. It was not pronounced enough for me. It might be due to the overwhelming amount of water it received.

I also noticed that a lot of my plants acquired red or orange leaves due to stress. I have seen this happen in a very hot, dry summer but never due to a deluge of rain.

My Meyer lemon has lots and lots of fruit. Just like the Italians, who grow citrus in pots and move them inside during the winter, I have lemons until the middle of December. People visiting around the Thanksgiving holidays, at first think they are fake. A holiday decoration. They are so sweet and luscious, I try to think of special things to do with them other than just using them for tea.

ZinniaZinnias are one of my favorite annuals and it performed well this year. When I see them, I always think of my oldest son, Nathan. He convinced me to grow them one year. I used to be a Zinnia snob, thinking they weren’t as sophisticated as salvias, roses and coneflowers. They won my heart, pumping out brightly colored discs. The butterflies and birds agree with me.

Catnip in the compostCatnip sprang up in one of my homemade compost bins. After witnessing how well it worked as a mosquito repellent (see my previous post), I didn’t have the heart to rip it out. I hope it reseeds itself around on the ground and anywhere else it wants to grow in the garden.

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Coneflowers in Kindergarten

I love perennials. The idea that they go away in the winter and then come back every spring is magical. I know they don’t always flower as prolifically as annuals, but their loyalty every year makes you want to hug them.

My favorite thing to do with perennials is pot them up and place them on our deck. It’s kind of like our version of plant kindergarten. They spend a year in a pot on our deck and if they perform well they get placed in elementary school in our garden. (Please forgive the school metaphors, but we are getting ready for school in our house.)

My garden really is similar to a school classroom in that every plant in my garden has its own strengths and weaknesses like individual kids in a class. The tiny, feathery flowers are put in the front, so the teacher can keep an eye on them. The big, overgrown, shrub that looks just like a football player, sits in the back of the class, sometimes driving the teacher crazy.

I guess kindergarten really does relate to so much of life. Even gardening.

My current little kindergartener on the deck is coneflowers. They really are a wonderful plants. They come in several colors. My coneflower is white with petals that stretch downward when fully open.

One of the great things about coneflowers is that tiny finches love to eat the seed that the flowers generate. The birds hang on to the bobbing flower-heads and pull the seeds out of the center of the flowers. It’s fun watching them act like acrobats in a tiny circus.

Last year, my kids and I watched a tiny yellow finch visit our kitchen window every day. We would hear a tap-tap-tap and look up to see him hanging on the window sill. It’s almost as if he tapped to just say hello. How are you humans? Everything okay?

I guess I need to find a place in the garden to put the coneflowers. They can be planted, in the garden, in the spring or fall. They did very nicely on the deck. I’m a proud plant Mommy.

Gardening Through the Tears

Willow tree

My curly willow tree bit the dust.

I am always so supportive to other gardeners when they lose plants. I tell them that a dead plant is an opportunity to dig it out and try something new.

When I lose a plant, I can’t ever be that philosophical. I’m always upset. The time taken planting and getting it established. All that love and nurturing and watering.

It’s heartbreaking.

My husband said, “Don’t tell your readers you lost a plant!” But really I should tell you that. In gardening you win and you lose. Gardening is all about the dreaming, planning, expectations, loving, watering, feeding, hoping and then sometimes things don’t go as you expected.

I knew when I planted a willow they are notorious for being sickly, and catching every disease that comes by. But I fell in love with a willow I saw in another person’s garden. Their willow tree reminded me of an exotic Caribbean man with long curly branches like dreadlocks. I was sucked in by the exotic charm of it. I had to have one. Unfortunately, mine never flourished like the one I saw in another garden. It mostly limped along, sometimes being nursed through diseases, only to rally again and show a little promise.

You would think I would be glad to be done with it all. But I think I mourn not for what it was but what I dreamed it could have been. At some point soon, I will get excited about what to put in its place. But for right now, I am sad that I have to get out my saw.

Showers, Puddles, and a Deluge of Rain

Rain

Right now my life consists of doing things in between rain showers. And in between the showers we get thunderstorms. Any sunlight at all makes everyone in the family look up from what they are doing and exclaim, “Sun – oh, wow!”  I think you get the idea. It’s wet and has been wet for a couple of weeks!

My son arriving home from summer camp with a trunk full of wet clothes didn’t help raise our spirits, either. Hanging up a sopping wet sleeping bag only highlights how damp we already feel.

As gardeners, what can we do in rainy situations?

I have found it is best to wait it out and do your gardening chores when the weather dries out. You run the risk of compacting the soil if you garden in the rain or just after rainy episodes. Besides, trying to plant and dig holes in the mud just makes everything a pain. Also, the plant’s roots can have a hard time becoming acclimated in sticky mud.

With that said, I have been known to sneak outside after a rain shower and carefully pull weeds out of flower beds. The rain makes it easy to pull the little buggers out! I’m careful to stand on flat rocks or bricks placed strategically throughout the flowers. Hopefully, I’m not causing too much compaction.

I also take this time to notice any water accumulating in areas that may need addressing. Be especially careful to keep water away from house foundations. That could be damaging to the outside and inside of your home. Make sure planting beds slope away from your house for proper run-off. Keep your house gutters clean, too.

Wet leaf

If you can, don’t have any bare soil. Rain will compact bare soil and quickly deplete it of nutrients. Plants hold the soil in place and act as tiny umbrellas helping to avoid soil erosion. Plants also draw up water, reducing the run-off into sewers. If planting is not possible at the moment, put down mulch to help with erosion.

Make plans to put water barrels at gutter downspouts to catch rain water. We had a roofing company attach forked downspouts on our rain gutters. This ingenious contraption lets you flip a metal switch between your water barrel and your downspout. When a barrel gets full, you can flip the switch and let the water run out the normal course. I even attached a metal hook to a broom handle and I can reach the switch from an open window. The neighbors must think I’m crazy!

I have one last suggestion for rainy day gardening activities. Put together a garden planner. I did this one year and really enjoyed it. Taking care of children has kept me from repeating it year after year, but I really believe this can be a fun, helpful, endeavor.

I bought a very pretty but inexpensive calendar – book style – with several pages for each month. As the gardening season began that year, I made notes in my calendar of projects to do next year. Sounds kind of crazy, but if you garden long enough you begin to understand that a good bit of gardening is planning for next month or next season or next year.  Using a calendar enables you to “schedule” the idea within the appropriate month for that particular project. For instance, if your idea is to plant more daffodils, place it in the calendar in October for fall bulb planting. It helps you stay organized and have fun in the planning stage.

Let’s pray for drier weather. Have fun gardening!

Picture of a thunderstorm at the top of the post is courtesy of Bidgee and is available on Wikimedia Commons.

My 3 Favorite Self-Seeding Perennials

Balloon Flower

Balloon Flowers – Mature Flower and Bud

I love perennials in a flower garden. There are so many to choose from and they come back year after year. Some are as tough as old boots and live a very long time. In the southern part of America, you can walk through forested areas and come across a stand of beautiful flowers. The house may be gone but the perennials are still flourishing where they were planted 100 years ago or longer.

One type of perennial that I especially like are self-seeding perennials. The name says it all. They love to seed themselves around the garden. Sounds like trouble, but not really. The original clump of plant that you planted comes back the next year and brings some friends along. Sometimes the plant just keeps getting bigger and wider. And sometimes you find that the flower has seeded itself on the other side of the garden entirely. Because of this I try to be careful when I weed and let some seedlings grow-up if I recognize what perennial they are. Sometimes I don’t want them there and I just easily pull them out.

My 3 favorite self-seeding, flowering perennials are Balloon Flowers, Lamb’s Ears, and Sweet William. These 3 have given me so much joy in the garden. Every year that they come back, it’s like seeing an old friend drop by to pay a visit.

Balloon Flower PatchBalloon Flowers (Platycodon Grandiflorus) are some of the most unusual perennials. I just love how they look as they prepare to bloom. A large stalk reaches skyward and then tiny pea-like flower buds form. The upper most “pea” on the stalk will start to swell and resemble a tiny expanding balloon. When the balloon pops, you have a beautiful, open, star-shaped flower. When this flower fades the next “pea” in line starts to swell. Balloon flowers come in shades of pink, white, purple and blue. This wonderful plant has one down side, it can be top-heavy. To combat this problem, I either stake them or most often shear them shorter early in spring and this creates a shorter plant that tends to not fall over.

Lamb's EarsLamb's Ears StalkLamb’s Ears (Stachys Byzantina) are a soft, fuzzy, gray flowering perennial. This plant also has a look that cannot be compared to anything else. It is unique. The base of the plant looks exactly like ears on a lamb. It is incredibly soft to the touch and its color doesn’t clash with anything else in the garden. The blooms are also unique looking in that they are tall, fuzzy spikes of tiny pink flowers. This plant is considered to be a perennial and a herb. I love this plant in bloom and without blooms. When the flower spikes have faded, I’m just as happy clipping them off and just having the “ears” left.

Sweet WilliamSweet WilliamSweet William (Dianthus Barbatus) is a member of that wonderful, sweet-smelling family that includes delicious, sweet-smelling Pinks. It ranges in colors from white to pink to lavender to red. This is a classic, cottage garden flower. Mixed together in various hues, and planted under rose bushes, you’ve planted a dynamite, cottage combination. This is described as a short-lived perennial, but I disagree. It should be described as a prolific self-seeder. It spreads its sweet-smelling self into large patches in the garden. And I’m so happy it does. I picked up a package of Sweet William seed at Jefferson’s Monticello because it was named after my lovable hubby. Over the years, it has turned into one of my favorite flowers.

Even though these prolific seeders do a great job, I help them out. I love to cut down the spent flower stalks that have gone to seed, dump the seed in my hand, and then sprinkle the seed in a bare spot that needs flowers. One year, as I “dead-headed” a large patch of Sweet William, I whacked the seed laden flower heads around inside a paper bag. At the end of my gardening session, I ended up with quite a lot of seed to scoop out into a new flower bed.

I love pictures in gardening magazines that show a large swathe of flowers all the same kind and color. This is the way to achieve those results. And on a budget, too. Happy gardening to all!

Mosquito Defense Update

A mosquitoI’m happy to update my previous post due to new information about the war on mosquitoes.

I hate mosquitoes. I think the little creatures came from the pits of hell to annoy us. I believe I have tried every possible solution to rid my garden from mosquitoes. I’m unlucky enough to have a chemical makeup that is allergically sensitive to their hateful bites, so when I am bitten the area around the bite swells to the size of a baseball.

In my previous blog post, I talked about many different ways of dealing with them. Sprays and lotions that contain DEET are reported to work well, but recently DEET has been reported to be a neurotoxin (damaging to the central nervous system). We need to stay away from products that are dangerous to our health. Citronella candles, tiki torches, and lanterns work well, but I have found you need quite a lot of them in a large area. Next, let’s talk about those huge, propane guzzling monsters. You know the ones – costing a fortune and promising to rid your entire yard of the little blood sucking beasts. Well, they do exactly as promised. They act as a “magnet” for mosquitoes.

Now that I have pointed out dangerous and ineffective products, let me tell you about really successful things I have tried.

Catnip! Hooray for catnip! Yes, once again we find an incredible use for a herb! What an incredible group of plants. Herbs! Hooray for herbs! An article on Science Daily reported a scientific finding by researchers at Iowa State University. It turns out that catnip repels mosquitoes more effectively than DEET. Why are we not hearing this shouted from the rooftops?! No animal or human tests are yet scheduled for catnip, although researchers are hopeful that will take place in the future. If subsequent testing shows the essential oil in catnip is safe for people, it should not be difficult to commercialize for an insect repellent.

I would like to offer up my own findings as a human guinea pig for the good of mankind and all mosquito haters worldwide. I have rubbed catnip all over myself in an attempt to try an experiment of my own. As you know, I love herbs, so I do have a pot of catnip growing beside our back deck. Does it work? Does it repel mosquitoes? Yes, yes it does! Once again our exceptional Creator has given us a plant to solve a problem. I have tried this experiment probably 12 times so far this summer. It really does work! And from experience it seems to last quite a long time, maybe even a couple of hours.

I have even felt safe putting it on my children. Many naturopaths suggest catnip tea for children with an upset tummy. My family and I have experienced no skin irritation or problems of any kind. I do recommend caution in trying this as everyone is different in their own chemical makeup, but I am really encouraged in how well this worked.

Herbs have microscopic oil glands all over their leaves and stems. These oil glands contain the natural chemicals which give the plant its particular scent. Simply rub the catnip leaves on your skin to release the oil from the plant. The oil will stick to your skin. It does not feel sticky or greasy like lotions and sprays.

I hope to see insect repellent made from catnip on our store shelves sooner rather than later. My plea to the scientific community: please, don’t take years to research this compound.

While we are on the subject of herbs, let’s talk about lemon balm. It is wonderful for mosquito bites. Rub lemon balm on a mosquito bite and it will reduce the itching and in my case some of the skin swelling associated with the bite. I suspect the oil in the lemon balm, the same one that makes it such a relaxing tea, helps as a sort of anesthetic on the bite. Another wonderful herb to solve a problem!

I’d like to comment on the ThermaCELL that hunters love to use. It is powered by a butane cartridge and dispenses a small amount of repellent into the air over a long period of time. It claims to create a 15 x 15 feet mosquito free zone. Our family bought this last year and tried it. It does work, and works well. I would recommend not sitting where you may breath in the repellent being dispensed into the air. As with any chemical repellent, it is a trade-off. I don’t like using chemicals, but I also hate being bit. Our family uses this about 6-8 times a year when we are having a barbecue or working on a large outdoor project, such as when my husband and I built our fruit cage. I recommend caution when using this, as it is a chemical.

How about a safe, effective, and organic substance to spread on your grass that repels mosquitoes and other biting insects? It’s called Mosquito Beater Granules by Bonide and it seems to work very well. We spread it over the entire lawn area and flower beds, too. It’s effect lasts for 4-6 weeks. The only down side is your yard will smell like an ethnic restaurant for a few hours, but then the smell dissipates. The odor is due to the ingredients: citronella oil, garlic, cedar oil, and lemon grass oil, among others, which mosquitoes seem to hate. The effectiveness lasts even after the smell is gone. The only down side to this product is scheduling. You must reapply after heavy rains, so schedule your application when you have at least 3-4 days of upcoming dry weather.

Things are looking up for mosquito sufferers everywhere! My sympathy to all the red, itchy bitten people out there. I know how rotten it feels. Try catnip and tell me what you think. Happy gardening!

Mosquito picture was taken by Alvesgaspar and is available on Wikimedia Commons.

Star Trek and Mother Earth

I just went to see the new Star Trek movie. Yes, I’m a gardener and a Star Trek fan. The movie was really great! I enjoyed it very much! I know. You’re asking – so what? Well I had a gardening revelation during the movie. Yes – I know that’s even worse. I’m having gardening thoughts during a high action movie like Star Trek, but hear me out.

The beautiful blue sky

The movie story takes place on space ships and 3 or 4 different planets. How can you differentiate planets in a science fiction movie? How do you highlight the planet Earth? The answer is green and blue. Every time they showed Earth you could see green grass, green trees, blue sky. Earth also had some futuristic, tall buildings but with them you also saw nature. Mother Earth. The big blue and green marble. Without these things it’s not our beautiful home. Our beautiful planet.

At the beginning of the movie, you see Captain Kirk on a planet. It is not Earth. As he walks, in the background you see red trees. It gives you the impression of someone walking through a slaughter house with blood everywhere. But it is not blood, it is the foliage and nature of another planet. A planet that is not our beloved home. There is no green foliage. The beautiful green that is my favorite color. It’s not our blue and green marble hanging in the universe.

A green leaf, sign of life

On Star Trek – Next Generation, one of the first shots on the show is of the resident robot, Data, in a setting that looks like the Garden of Eden. The garden is not real, it is a hologram created on the ship’s holodeck. The creators of the show wanted it to look as though gardens were a very rare element in the future. I certainly hope this doesn’t come true. An article in an organic magazine stated that as years have gone by more and more young people choose not to go into any agricultural field of study. We have less and less farmers. Less and less horticulturalists. And in the future we will have even less. I worry for our nation and for the ability for us to feed ourselves. I feel we must encourage our children to love nature, know where our food comes from, develop an interest in growing food and pass this knowledge on to their own children.

The astronauts that walked on the moon said the most beautiful sight to them was the Earth. Earth. The beautiful blue orb in the moon sky. It represented home, everything they knew and loved. I was struck during the Star Trek movie by how much I love our Earth. God must be pleased as He looks down upon his lovely creation. We are so lucky to look up to the blue sky, feel the green grass under our toes, watch butterflies twirl around us. So much of life is filled to overflowing with the trivial things of life. Today I looked up to the beautiful blue sky and the green plants all around me. I encourage you to look at the green and the blue that is around you. To plant something today. And to teach your kids to plant, too.