Tuesday, July 28, 2009


It's July and the temperature is (finally) rising. This is not the time to be planting so why am I shopping now?

The first thing I've been doing is visiting the local garden centers (LGC) to see what's attracting butterflies. I've made lists of plants to add to my butterfly garden based on what's popular at the LGC.

The second thing I've been doing is looking at the plants that are blooming now. I like Lilies but I'm quite picky about the blooms. So I go looking now, while they are in bloom, make notes and plan for fall. This is also a good time to look at Daylilies. Daylilies are such hardy plants that I could buy them now but I don't have a spot ready and I'm so far behind on my other gardening chores that I don't have time to make a spot (I think the 10 inches of rain this summer is a good excuse, we'll ignore the fact that I'm always behind in the garden).

I've also been busy with catalogs. It rained over 3 inches last week (squish) so I had plenty of indoor time. Shopping from catalogs can be tricky. A new supplier may or may not provide high quality plant material. Catalogs often have stuff that's not available locally (or at the very least they SHOULD have unusual stuff that may not be available locally) so you may never have seen the plant in question. Then there are the shipping fees. These can add quite a lot to the cost of the plant so watch for them.

On the plus side ordering from catalogs can get you the unusual stuff. It may be unusual because it's difficult to grow or because it's new on the market or you may be pushing your zone. I buy all three. This fall I can look forward to a large order of bulbs from Brent and Becky and some more oddballs from Plant Delights. These can join my zone-pushing Salvias and my hopefully winter hardy to zone 6 Rosemary (a variety called Arp). We'll have to see if they survive the coming winter.

One tip for shopping from catalog is to try a small order first and see what quality plants you get. I do this with new places, even if they do come recommended. Second, try and visit them. I have been to Plant Delights and their grounds are delightful! It's so nice to see plants in a garden setting to get an idea of things like final size and the true color of the blooms/foliage. One of my favorite places to visit when I lived in NC was Niche Gardens. They, too, have a catalog service but their grounds are worth visiting. Niche has a great selection of natives.

So be adventurous. Spend a hot or rainy afternoon inside and find something new and different to try in the garden this fall. You never know, it might surprise you.

Monday, July 27, 2009


Since June 10th I have recorded over 10 inches of rain at my house. I know parts of this country (especially Texas) are in a severe drought but up here we've got flood warnings and unripened tomatoes (it hasn't been warm enough for them).

Gardeners are naturally obsessed with the weather. It has such a major impact on our gardens. Years ago I signed up as a volunteer weather observer for the National Weather Service. The volunteer program has since been turned over to a non-profit but I am still collecting weather information. The new program is called the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network. Check it out at www.cocorahs.org. You can look at rainfall across your state from volunteers like me or sign up yourself.

CoCoRaHS makes its data available to meterologists, climatologists, and whoever else so they can study the weather, make better predictions, learn about microclimates and who knows what all. I just know it's fun when I report heavy rain or hail and then see the local weatherman announce my report on the news.

It's easy to be a CoCoRaHS volunteer. You do have to buy a 'fancy' rain gauge. My rain gauge will hold up to 11 inches of rain and will measure it to the hundreth of an inch. I know I'll need to be reporting snowfall this winter, which has never really been an issue for me before. I guess I'll have to view the on-line tutorial.

I also record my rainfall for my own use. Theoretically, if I can live in one place long enough, I can follow rainfall patterns to help improve my gardening. Theoretically.

Meanwhile my grass is overgrown, the weeds are getting high and the grass I had planned to remove around my new plantings is still in place. The good news is that I haven't needed to water any of my new plants!

Flower Power

Coreopsis Mardi Gras with Buddleia Nanho Blue

Society Garlic

Monarda, unknown variety from neighbor, amazingly free of Powdery Mildew


Cosmos, unknown

Coreopsis Heaven's Gate (Right) and
African Blue Basil (Left)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Front Yards

Most houses have some sort of foundation planting. Look out your front windows. What do you see? I see a house with oversized yews that get trimmed into nearly square shapes several times a year. Then next to that I see a house with flowering shrubs (spirea, itea, hydrangeas and others) that are deciduous and loose all their leaves in the winter. Next door to me the house has lots of perennials, some low growing roses, anchored by clumps of grasses at the corners. What a change from just a few years ago when houses had three round balls of boxwood (or up here in the Boston area probably yew). I call this progress.

My yard was professionally landscaped before we bought it. The foundation plantings included hollies, pieris, the innevitable boxwoods and yews, azaleas, a low growing euonymous, a rhododendron and one lone perennial - a bleeding heart. It looked pretty good (except for the yews which were pruned into submission). At least until you looked closer. The pieris were under the windows and they're a bit too tall. OK, I could probably manage them. But they, and all the other plantings) are way too close to the house. In fact most of them are touching the house. The creeping euonymous was actually growing up behind the siding.

Plants touching the siding are problamatic for several reasons. One, it's time to repaint the exterior and the plants are in the way. Two, they invite and shelter pests such as termites. That's a big one for me. Three you can't get to the outside of the house for any maintainence. Four they reduce air flow and might allow moisture to build up right next to the house. Five, you can't spot any problems. And so on. On my house they also planted two hollies right next to the front yard spigot. I can push through and reach it but it leaks badly and needs to be replaced by a plumber. The plumber won't work on it because of the holly bushes in the way. This is a significant problem.

So I decided the foundaiton plantings needs to be modified or removed. I've already taken out the butchered yews and planted annuals (Mexican feather grass and sweet peas). The yew had braketed the garage door and were planted in small circles of soil bounded by driveway and walkway. I'm thinking clematis for long term.

I also removed the boxwoods by the front door and replaced them with my husband's choice - thread leaf cypress. I picked a smaller variety and planted them further from the house.

Now it's planning time (a good chore for rainy summer days, of which we've had quite a lot here in New England). I need to move the pieris and at least two of the hollies. I'm hoping I can move the pieris to the back yard where I can see them all winter. They are evergreen with colorful winter foliage. The two male hollies I'm hoping to move out away from the house but still keep in the front to pollinate the two female hollies. The females are further from the house and I'm hoping I can keep them under control with minimal pruning. I really enjoyed watching the birds come every time the snow level went down to eat the newly exposed berries.

I'd like to remove the azaleas and the euonymous. The azaleas are a pale pink and have a short bloom period so I don't think they're worth saving. I'm an intense color person rather than a pastel person. And the euonymous is too agressive.

Now the question is what do I put in their places? I have the corners anchore by the female hollies and the door bracketed by the cypress. Do I try to find evergreen shrubs that fit under the windows? Do I put in deciduous shrubs? How about perennials? and don't forget grasses! Whew. Decisions, decisions, decisions. I do know that the professional who originally designed the garden had a good eye and a good plan (if poorly executed) so I'm hoping to follow his or her ideas. I'll put one type of plant where the pieris were, a different type of plant where the azaleas were, etc. It should make a nice mixed border with just enough diversity and just enough repetition.

Monday, July 20, 2009

New Neighbors

We have new neighbors. She's a single mom trying to make it on her own. OK, I know you cheated and looked at the picture so you know I'm not talking about a person. She's a Golden Digger Wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus) and she's moved in right by our main door.

This big beauty is a common visitors to gardens across the US, parts of Canada and point further South (interesting in the Western US this wasp has pale wings while here in the Eastern US she'll have dark wings). She often frightens gardeners with her large size but she is really a shy girl who won't bother you unless you try to pick her up (hey baby, what's your sign? Buzz off!).

The adult Golden Digger Wasp actually consumed nectar and is a good pollinator to have in the garden. She will also prey on some garden pests in the Katydid family to provision her nest. The female digs a burrow, preferably in sandy soil, with around 8 cells branching off a main tunnel (the sources I read had different numbers but they were all around that). In each cell she places one or more crickets, katydids, camel crickets or similar insect and then she lays one egg. Once she has filled the cells in one burrow she will seal it closed and begin to dig another burrow, repeating the process for the duration of her short life.

Golden Digger Wasps are solitary but not territorial. You can find several digging in close proximity but they do not share a nest. In this photo you might be able to see a second wasp perched on the edge of a paver. This is not a Golden Digger Wasp and the presence of this wasp clearly agitated the Golden Digger. It is possible that the second wasp was looking for a free ride and hoping that our Golden Digger would leave the entrance to her nest long enough for it to slip in and lay it's own eggs. Wasps are not know for their compassion.

Our Golden Digger has moved on to a second site, also near our main door. I guess I won't get to that project where I actually put the pavers in the ground this year, I'll wait until after next summer when her brood will have hatched and flown off for their short summer of love and digging.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Secrets of the Buttefly Garden

1. If you plant it they will come. Eventually. It takes patients to grow a good butterfly garden. The first year you might despair - seeing very few butterflies. That's where I am this year in my new house. But I know that if I plant the right plants for both the adult and the larval butterflies (caterpillars) that the population will increase and in a year or two my yard will be filled.

2. Don't forget plants for the caterpillars. Check and see if your state has a butterfly club or check out the NABA website at www.naba.org. You should be able to find a listing for larval plant host species. I always plant plenty of parsley for the swallowtail caterpillars and Asclepias sp. for monarchs. Be prepared for ragged looking plants. By the end of the season my parsley is down to nubs and the Asclepias is often bare stems. If you like a tidy garden don't plant for butterflies.

3. Over the next two or three months butterfly populations will peak so now is the time to check out your local garden centers or arboretums. Don't buy anything (except maybe that spectacular lily, I can keep it alive in a pot until planting time, I'm sure). This is the worst time of the year to establish plants in most of the country. Instead look for plants that are attracting pollinators. Now you may not see many butterflies so instead look for bees. If bees like it chances are good that butterflies will, too. Make a list and plant to buy at least three of each in the fall. Large swaths of color will be more attractive to butterflies than one of each.

4. Now for the dirty little secret of butterfly gardening. Plants that attract butterflies also attract other pollinators. This means bees and wasps. This does not mean you have to fear stings. My husband is allergic to bee stings and we've worked it out. Most bees and wasps will not sting you if you don't bother them (I don't recommend picking them up). The exception is yellow jackets - they can be quite aggressive. So learn to identify them. If I see lots of them I start looking for their nest - they are ground nesters. Then we have the nest professionally destroyed. My husband is allergic, after all. Oh, and I also do the mowing, just in case I don't know about a nest, we don't want John to mow over one.

5. Don't use pesticides. Period. Not ever. Not even on your grassy lawn area. (ok, so I just admitted using them for yellow jackets but only because they are aggressive and my husband is allergic. Other than that no pesticides in our yard) Pesticides kill insects and that includes butterflies and caterpillars. If you use pesticides you will be killing some of the very insects you are trying to attract. There are other reasons to avoid pesticides use but pesticides deserve a whole soap box of their own so I'll save that for a future posting.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Lawn Quality

The Lawn. Not too long ago a lawn meant mostly grass, green most of the time, brown in hot summer weather, mowed to a few short inches by some kid in the neighborhood. Then it evolved and the ideal lawn seems to be a strict monoculture, no clover allowed, maintained by a professional service who comes out periodically and sprays who knows what on the lawn and mows it once a week, on Thursday, followed by the use of a leaf blower, during my most productive computer time. Or at least that's what happens in a couple of lawns in my neighborhood.

This week I watched as a lawn care profession pulled up in truck with a big tank on the back, put on coveralls, a mask, goggles, gloves, and rubber boots and sprayed something on my neighbors' yards. I'm not sure what she was spraying but she didn't want it to get on her. At this time of the year I hope it wasn't a fertilizer - we're about to go into summer heat when grass should be resting, turning brown or patchy (depending on rainfall) and mowing is less frequent. But I wonder about all the sprays that go on their lawn. If she needs that kind of gear I really don't want that stuff on my lawn where my dogs (and I) go barefoot and I grow my vegetables. It makes you wonder what the real price of lawn perfection turn out to be.

I have heard of a scientific study on the rate of cancer in a particular breed of dog (I think it was Boston Terriers but it might have been Pugs, one of those small but not too yippy breeds). The study found that dogs whose people had a lawn service had a higher cancer rate than those whose owners either applied their own chemicals or did nothing.

Anecdotally in one of my former neighborhoods there was a lawn obsessed man. He mowed multiple times a week, edged, and sprayed obscene amounts of chemicals. Downhill from him a neighbor's house had well water. In the downhill house the couple had tried to have a family but kept having miscarriages. They finally got their water tested. It was full of all kinds of strange chemicals used for lawn care, including several that were banned in the US. Were the miscarriages coincidental? Remember that what is apparently safe now may be banned in the future - there are a great many herbicides and pesticides that have been taken off the market due to long term health risks.

When I moved in my lawn had been professionally maintained. I couldn't find any weeds (see the first two images). So what did I do? First off I cut my lawn off from synthetic chemicals, cold turkey. Then I bought some clover seed. Not only is clover good for the soil (it helps make Nitrogen available to other plants) but I can remember spending warm afternoons serching for four leaf cloves. I knew where all the good patches were - including one that routinetly and five, six or more leafed clovers.
I don't have many of these "weeds" yet but I'll do my best to encourage them. This is a native violet. Not the ragged edges on the leaves - this plant is a host plant for some butterfly species (meaning the caterpillers will preferentially eat this plant). It also blooms in the spring and thrives in shady conditions where grass has trouble growing.

I transplanted some violets from my neighbors yard into my flower beds to provide a seed source for the lawn. I did get her permission first. Really, I did.

My yard is kind of small and my dogs are kinds of rowdy (and they dig) so my perennial beds have to go in front. Yipee, less lawn to mow. I am following the newest trend in front lawns - no lawn. This picture shows my first phase.
You may notice that I have one-of-each-itis in this bed (ie one liatris, one society garlic, one Asclepias tuberosa etc). This is the year of experimentation. One I see what does well in my new climate I will plant more of them (and I'm really happy with that liatris). What doesn't perform will go in the compost bin. Harsh, I know, but I have a limited amount of space available. My long term plan is to replace that narrow patch of grass by expanding the beds on both sides (to the left is my foundation plantings - more on those in another post) and leaving a single mower width of grass. And that only until I replace it with a path. But first I have to do the other side of my front walk (about the same distance behind the camera). And the side of the house where the tall perennials will go, and the foundation plantings, and some more shrubs in the backyard for the dogs to run around and...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

GBBD - 1 day late

The 15th of each month is Garden Blogger's Bloom Day when Garden bloggers post what's blooming in their gardens. This was started by Carol at May Dreams - check out her posting at www.maydreamsgardens.blogspot.com/ where she includes links to other participants.

Unfortunately I was unable to post on the 15th this month since it fell on a Wednesday (my busy volunteer day). So here's my posting, a day late.

I started off the pictures with a perennial bachelor's button, Centaura montana. This is the second bloom cycle for this perennial this year and it's just getting started. I don't have any experience growing Centaura sp but I like the unusual shape of its blooms and this is the year of experimentation. Of course I like experimenting in the garden.

Second off is a variation on a theme - Helenium Mardi Gras. I'm a sucker for plants that attract butterflies, as this one does, I love bright colors and lots of contrast - check and check. Helenium are usually easy to grow plants.

Here's the classic Shasta Daisy, Becky. I like the simplicity of these flowers (and the complexity of the Centaura - no one said I was consistant) and the fact that they attract pollinators. Of course now that's it's thriving I realize I put it in the wrong spot and plan to move it this fall. I have it by the road where I mostly have very low growing plants and I'm worried it will over take my thrift. Besides it looks kind of dorky between the thrift and the dianthus. I have a spot in mind for a new bed where I'll move this plant, add some Echinacea, Baptisia, some Iris and Lilies.

Next stop Coreopsis. I have a couple of coreopsis in the yard that are blooming right now including this variety, which is called Heaven's Gate (above). This is a taller coreopsis that is getting a little floppy. Fortunately it is next to a sturdy aster that is able to provide support. Other coreopsis that are blooming right now include Zagreb (a brighter yellow version of Moonbeam, see image right) and Nana (a Coreopsis auriculata variety).

This is my husband's favorite plant - Asclepias tuberosa. Commonly called butterfly weed. A bright, cheery orange flower this plant will also attract butterflies, especially Monarchs. Asclepias (and there are a few species in the garden industry) are in the milkweed family and Monarchs will stop by to lay their eggs. If you get an Asclepias you must be prepared to have it completely denuded of leaves in late summer. Don't worry it will come back and in the meantime you'll get to watch the stricking Monarch caterpillars grow and, if you're lucky, you'll be able to find some chrysalis. If you don't like orange there is a yellow variety of Asclepias tuberosa and there are white and pink colored Asclepias incanata (which is even more attractive to Monarchs).

My last image is of some screaming pink geraniums - yes they are that pink. Not a very usual plant but an usual color variation. I also like the funky shape of the pot, I found it on sale at a local garden center and knew I needed something strong to go in it. I think it works. If you like loud plants.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Coyote *NOT* ugly

Coyotes often get a bad rap. When I moved into my house my neighbors were quick to warn me about the coyotes and how dangerous they are. I scoffed. I've worked with coyotes, both wild and captive raised and while they are good sized predators they rarely cause problems for humans who know how to live with them. Now I just have to teach all my neighbors.

Coyotes have expanded their range in the past few decades, moving into new areas including urban areas. In Los Angles coyotes manage to live right down in the center of town, living in washes, abandoned buildings, and scrubby lots. In both North Carolina and Massachusetts (the two states I have most recently lived in) coyotes have been found in all mainland areas. Why has this population increase occurred when so many species are loosing ground to habitat degradation, global climate change and rampant pollution? Because coyotes, like opossums, pigeons and ourselves, are amazingly adaptable.

A coyote is a medium sized canine, averaging between 35 and 50 pounds, with a highly variable fur color. Their eating habits are flexible, with rodents, lizards, insects and the occasional deer fawn for prey but also including berries, vegetables, human garbage and pet food. This ability to thrive on a wide variety of food stuff is characteristic of the species that do well in suburban and urban areas.

Their social structure is also flexible, with a pack usually consisting of a breeding pair and their offspring. Occasionally last year's offspring stay with the parents and help with the next years litter.

Are coyotes a problem? They can be. Yesterday my dogs alerted me to a coyote wandering down the trail behind our house. Am I worried about my dogs safety? If they were small dogs I would, just as I would if I let my cats go outside (I'll save that discussion for another soap box). But the truth is that free roaming, off-lead dogs, cars and poison are much bigger problems for pets and coyotes rarely harm humans.

So what do you do if you see a coyote? First thing take a brief moment to enjoy the sighting and then yell at it! That will usually do the trick. If you are out watering the vegetable patch feel free to spray it with a hose. If coyotes are consistently seen in your neighborhood carry tennis balls to throw at the coyote (they won't hurt it but boy they will scare it!).

The best defence is a good offence and good offense against problems with wildlife are removing whatever is attracting them. It means securing your garbage, not leaving pet food outside, and closing up crawl spaces and areas under sheds (good den spots for coyotes). All of these tactics will not only decrease potential problems with coyotes but also with raccoons, opossums, skunks and bears. Don't forget your bird feeder. A bird feeder will attract rodents and rodents will attract coyotes. If you still have a problem contact your local fish and wildlife agency for further advice.

Monday, July 13, 2009

In the Begining

I recently moved to a new house where the yard was professionally landscaped and the landscape was professionally managed. Professional landscaping can be aesthetically appealing in the same way minimalistic decor can be appealing inside a house. I like the way it looks, it just doesn't work for the way I live. So I have set out to change the yard from landscape to garden. The yard is a blank slate, waiting to be written upon.

Since I moved to Boston's North Shore from the South I knew I'd have to start over with learning how to garden. First there was the snow. Then the soil type (sandy loam here, loamy clay in the South). Then the climate, mild here, hot and humid in the South. So I'm learning.

This is the year of experimentation.