Thursday, September 27, 2012

Wildflower Wednesday: The Not-So-Obedient Plant

Fall has definitely arrived in my part of Illinois with cooler nights and frequent rainy days.  Monday morning I awoke to find the whole yard had turned white--the first frost of the season.  Fortunately, nothing in the garden seems to have been affected by the frost.  Thanks to all the rain the last several weeks, annuals and perennials are looking better in September than they did in July.  The butterfly garden especially has come alive, due to the fall-blooming natives that have almost taken over this area.

One of those natives is Physostegia virginiana, commonly called Obedient Plant.  A member of the mint family, Obedient Plant grows up to four feet tall with flowers that are purplish, pink, or white.  This is the first year that all the blooms I have are white, rather than pink, which may mean that they are reverting back to their wild state, since those plants tend to have mostly white blooms.  It is pollinated primarily by bumblebees, though other long-tongued bees and hummingbirds may also visit it.

Blooms first open up at the bottom, then proceed upward.
 Sometimes called False Dragonhead as well, the plant was given the name "Obedient" because the individual flowers stay in place if you move them.  I'm not sure why anyone would want to have blooms facing a certain way, but hey, if that's important to you, then who am I to judge:)

Doing some research, I discovered that yes, it's true--these little blooms are quite cooperative to being manipulated.

Not everyone loves this plant--in fact, some would go so far as to call it a thug or even invasive.  Most references are a little kinder, but do warn that especially in moist soils it can "sometimes spread aggressively."  My butterfly garden was anything but "moist" this summer, yet the Obedient Plants did just fine; in fact, I think they're determined to take over this area, if given the chance.  As I looked at all the seedlings that came up this spring, a question came to my mind.

 Why do we plant something when we know it could spread so rampantly?  After some careful thought, I've come up with a few answers, but feel free to add more in a comment.

1. Ignorance. Most people know that you should never plant certain species like purple loosestrife or some types of honeysuckle, plants that top most states' invasive plant lists.  But plant tags on other species at garden centers or plant sales don't always tell you that something could take over your garden.  When I first started my butterfly garden several years ago, I was just learning about native plants and was excited when I found out the local Prairie Plant Society was holding a plant sale in May.  My friend Beckie and I went to the plant sale, where I picked up several natives that I knew were attractive to butterflies, including a Joe Pye Weed and an aster.  Then I noticed the Obedient Plant and snatched it up as well--I remembered reading about it on someone's blog the previous fall, but I didn't remember any of its characteristics, unfortunately.

Asters are good companions for Obedient Plant--they all started from one little plant here as well.
I've often told the story of that first little Obedient Plant--how it grew to two feet tall that summer, until one day Sophie, still a rambunctious puppy then, bounded through the garden and broke off the stem.  I was upset, thinking that was the end of it.  But to my surprise, the following year it came back--and had multiplied more prolifically than a rabbit!  Fast forward to this spring, when I noticed Obedient seedlings covering at least a third of this small garden area. If I hadn't pulled out at least half the seedlings, they would have choked out some of the Susans and other plants that aren't quite so aggressive.  I have learned my lesson--before I buy an unfamiliar plant, I do a little research first.  "Aggressive spreader" or "spreads by rhizomes" are red flags that I probably don't want to add this plant to my already crowded garden, no matter how pretty it may be.

In a friend's garden, a border of gravel keeps Obedient Plant from spreading to the neighbors.

2. You can contain it some way., whether in a pot or an enclosed area. I've learned that bamboo is a notorious spreader and difficult to eradicate once it's established.  Yet I know gardeners who grow it and other invasives in large pots or in an area enclosed in some way, whether by rocks or other types of edging.  As long as the plant doesn't have seeds that could be spread by wind or birds, this method may work for a plant you simply must have, no matter its aggressive tendencies.

3.  You have lots of space and could use something that multiplies quickly. Many of us have an area where nothing seems to grow, including grass.  For me, it's an area next to my shade garden in front of a very large spruce tree.  The soil is hard clay, and thirsty tree roots drink up most of the rainfall, yet garlic mustard and a few other weeds still seem to thrive. I've transplanted a few errant lamium--another "spreader," but much better-mannered than some--in part of this area, as well as liriope and some ajuga.  The lirope hasn't done much, and the ajuga, along with some free toad lilies I received, seems to have disappeared in this summer's drought. I wouldn't mind something that spreads rather quickly to cover the bare soil and choke out the weeds in this area.

The bees enjoy all the native "spreaders" in the butterfly garden--this area has been a buzz of activity all fall.
4. Just because it's considered invasive in some areas doesn't mean it will be in your garden. Another blogger recently commented that lantana had now been labelled somewhat invasive in her state.   In my zone 5b garden, that's certainly not a problem because lantana is not hardy here; in fact, I buy a flat of it every spring.  My friend Beckie tried for years to control the false sunflowers, Heliopsis helianthoides, that were overtaking her garden.  When I asked for a few starts, she gladly gave them to me but with a warning that I might be sorry.  Naturally, they all died for me.  I tried a second time, and this time they survived.There are still a few of these in the butterfly garden, but with all the other thugs around--like Obedient Plant--they haven't had a chance to spread.  So an invasive plant in one place might not be so aggressive in another . . . of course, it's up to you whether you want to take that chance!

The white blooms often have pink or purple dots and whorls on the inside--fairy footprints perhaps??

Sometimes even the most experienced gardeners make mistakes and plant something they later regret.  But let's face it, there are some "spreaders" that are so appealing in some way that we are willing to take a chance and grow them anyway.  Sweet Autumn clematis is a good example. It is listed on the Illinois list of invasive species, yet I see it growing in so many local gardens, with good reason--its blooms are beautiful this time of year.

As for my Obedient plant, I'll continue to pull out excess seedlings in the spring because I think these pretty late-bloomers are worth it.  But if you decide to add some to your own garden, just remember that I warned you these natives are anything but obedient!

Wildflower Wednesday is celebrated the fourth Wednesday of every month and hosted by Gail at Clay and Limestone. You are welcome to join us in celebrating all things native!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

September Bloom Day

It's September Bloom Day, and what a glorious day it is!  The sun is shining, the temperature is perfect for spending time outdoors, and my garden is looking good.  That's not bragging--that's being thankful.  After a miserably hot summer and weeks without rain,  I didn't think I would have much left in the garden this month.  But after several much-needed rains, the garden has revived and looking better than it has in awhile.

You know it's almost fall by looking at the butterfly garden where the asters are in full bloom.

Taking good photographs in bright sunlight is hard enough, but a little breeze can make it even more difficult.  I call this "the windswept look."

Another sign of fall--the beautyberry's berries are turning purple!

Miscanthus 'Morning Light' is waving its plumes proudly.

After a month of regular rainfall, the Profusion Zinnias are finally filling in the front edging of the Arbor Bed.

Behind them, the 'October Skies' asters are sporting a few blooms here and there.  In a few weeks they will be a mass of light blue blooms.  In fact, the way these second-year plants have spread this year, there won't be any room for zinnias in front of them next year.

Speaking of no room, the cosmos have decided to compete for domination around the Arbor Bed bench with the hyacinth bean vine and the cardinal flower.

Many of these cosmos, 'Dancing Petticoats' grown from seed from Renee's Garden, have exceeded expectations, growing to six feet or taller.

On the other side of the arbor bench trellis, the climbing rose 'Don Juan' has also thrived, blooming once again during these cooler days.

Also re-blooming after I thought it had succumbed to the drought are the sky-blue blooms of a plant given to me by best friend Beckie.  I had seen this plant during a garden walk this summer, but no one could remember what it was,  though the flowers resembled a phlox.  The plant label said simply 'Blue Phlox,' but later another friend said it was Plumbago.  I know it's hard to tell from this photo, but it certainly does look like the Plumbago I've seen in photos on various websites.  Either way, it is not hardy here; we'll see if I remember to dig it up before the first frost and whether it can over-winter indoors.

Lavender is still going strong; I hope this one plant will multiply next year.

Coreopsis 'Moonbeam' is also enjoying the fall weather and putting out a fresh flush of blooms.

Patience does pay off--the 'Homestead Verbena' is finally blooming. I've found verbena needs lots of water and doesn't particularly like the heat.  'Homestead' will bloom until frost, but it's not hardy here in zone 5b. However, if we have a winter as mild as last year, it might make it.

I've written very little about my vegetable garden this year, with good reason.  The green beans, onions, and beets did quite well, but my tomatoes are cracking and splitting and the squash bugs have gotten to the yellow squash.  The marigolds and zinnias are the only bright notes in this garden right now.

That is, besides the kale.  I don't remember the variety, because I planted this two years ago, and it's come back every year since.  At four feet tall, it helps to hide the weedy area behind it:)

By this time of year, many of my containers are usually looking pretty sad, and that's especially true this year, particularly with the lack of care I gave them.  One new annual I planted, though, is still looking perky.  I picked up this ornamental pepper when I couldn't find the Persian Shield I usually use as an accent plant. Like the Persian Shield, it starts drooping when it needs water, an easy reminder to me to get the hose out.  This plant will definitely be on my spring shopping list again next year.

In the shade garden, the 'Endless Summer' hydrangeas are full of summer blooms fading to a rosy pink.  I noticed this new bloom emerging this week, however.  The hydrangeas are definitely appreciating the more frequent rainfall.

The star of the September garden, though, has to be the Hydrangea paniculata 'Limelight.'  This is the easiest hydrangea I've ever grown, and it has quickly become one of my all-time favorite plants.

Although I've tried to limit photos today to plants that are new bloomers or those that have re-bloomed after taking off some time this summer, I can't resist one more photo of my new Caryopteris 'Summer Sorbet.'  A great plant for late season color!

The zinnias have also been shown before; in fact, looking back through my photo files, I realized that they have been blooming for over two months.  I think that deserves some kind of plant award!

But the real purpose in including them here is to show off some other "bloomers" in my garden.  For the past several weeks, the garden has been swarming with all kinds of butterflies.

I've been thrilled to see so many different varieties this year, including this Pearl Crescent on the white salvia.

Nearby, a Buckeye also enjoys the salvia.

All kinds of flying critters are finding Sedum 'Autumn Joy' irresistible as it turns to its rosy hues of autumn, including this Painted Lady. I was especially excited to see several Painted Ladies lately, as they haven't been seen in my garden in several years.

With so much going on in the garden right now, I think September may be my new favorite month!

What is blooming in your garden today?  You can join in the celebration of Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day by visiting Carol-who-gardens-with-the fairies at May Dreams Gardens.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Garden Lessons Learned: Summer 2012

Experience is the best teacher, the old saying goes.  That is certainly true when it comes to gardening.  I have learned so much the last few years through the Master Gardener program and various gardening seminars and talks, through reading garden books and magazines, and of course, through reading garden blogs.  But there's nothing quite like the actual "doing"--and making mistakes along the way--for learning what works in your own garden and what doesn't.

Every season I learn something new or re-learn an old lesson that I should have remembered, so I am joining in once again with Beth of Plant Postings' "Garden Lessons Learned from the Summer of  2012."  Among the many lessons taught me by this hot, dry summer are these:

1. Summers in Illinois can be very hot. 
     Duh.  I have lived in Illinois my whole life, more years than I care to admit, so you would think I would remember this.  But every year when spring arrives, I am as giddy as a young teenager experiencing her first crush, tiptoeing through the garden to admire every tulip and daffodil in bloom.  I start making plans for all kinds of garden projects and make frequent visits to nurseries, coming home with trunkloads of trays filled with all kinds of annuals.  List after list is made of what needs to be planted where and garden chores to be completed each day.

 This spring, inspired by my trip to all the lovely gardens of Asheville and motivated by guests coming one day in late June, I worked as much as possible in the garden.  But then the thermometer soared to 90 and climbed even higher, and I melted into a sweaty blob of inertia.  For the next six weeks about the only thing that got accomplished in the garden was watering.

The shade garden was about the only place I enjoyed working in during July.

So what can I take away from this lesson to make next year more enjoyable?
  •  Recognize my limitations--I'm not like those Victorian ladies who would "glow" in the heat; I sweat.  And every drop of sweat that runs down my face seems to take a pound of energy from my body.  I just don't "do" heat well at all.  I need to remember this when choosing plants and not plant anything too fussy or that requires constant deadheading, because it's just not going to get done in the middle of summer.
  • Mulch, mulch, and mulch early!  This was a banner year for weeds; it seemed like weeding was all that I got done in June.   By the first of July, I had spread mulch over all the garden areas.  But if I had started earlier, while I was planting, I could have cut back on much of that work and accomplished some other projects before the heat set in.
  • Choose plants that thrive in the heat.  Lantana has become one of my "must-have" annuals every summer because it absolutely loves the heat; no wilting blooms here.  Of course, it will be just my luck that next year we'll have an unusually cool and wet summer . . . but I'm not betting on that:)
Unlike me, Lantana loves the heat!

2. Plants need rain.
While I was somewhat tongue-in-cheek earlier, the drought this summer was no laughing matter.  As much as I avoided the heat, I did drag myself outside as early as I could each morning to water all the containers and set up sprinklers for the garden, dashing out again every hour or so to move the sprinklers around.  But plants know the difference between well water and pure rain, and they just weren't happy.  As tiresome and frustrating as the lack of rainfall was for me, it didn't compare to those whose livelihoods depend on a good growing season.  Some farmers in the state had to cut down or plow under crops that withered in the drought.

  • After two years of drought that reached "extreme" conditions by early August, I've learned that I should look carefully at water needs before buying a plant.  The Caryopteris 'Summer Sorbet' above was a serendipitous choice this year.  I had wanted one for several years primarily to add some late summer color.  I didn't realize, though, that this plant enjoys dry conditions as well as heat--a perfect choice for the summer of '12!
  • Because the drought was so widespread across the United States, I also learned how nice it is to have blogging friends to commiserate with.  We were all in the same boat, struggling to keep our gardens alive.
I think Lambs' Ears are impervious to any kind of weather.

    3. Some plants need extra nutrients.
    Annuals, particularly those in containers, really benefit from regular applications of fertilizer throughout the season.  Even though I used potting soil with plant food mixed in--the only kind of potting soil our local garden centers sell, it seems--it doesn't take long for the plants crowded together in a pot to use up most of the soil's nutrients.  I usually buy a commercial fertilizer that has extra phosphorus to boost bloom production and try to apply it every two weeks.  This year, however, I kept procrastinating, thinking a rain would be nice before applying it, and never got around to fertilizing more than once all summer.  As a result, most of my containers are looking pretty ratty right now, even the varieties of petunias that are usually so dependable for me.  The lesson is clear: if I want pretty containers all summer long, I need to vow to maintain them, which means a regular schedule of fertilizing.

    This planter looked pretty good when I first planted it and filled out even more over the next month, but I'm not showing a photo of it now:)

    4. Some plants are prolific self-seeders.
    In several posts over the summer I've mentioned the nicotania and the Salvia farinacea that nearly took over my arbor bed this year.  But there were other volunteers I was surprised by as well, including the cardinal vine.  I forgot to plant some seeds this year, but not to worry--I soon found out it had re-seeded itself all around the arbor bench.  Over the summer, I've found tendrils of this vine wrapped around other plants as far as six feet away.  That rapid growth may sound a bit worrisome, but it is easy to snip the straying tendrils, and a more diligent gardener than I should have no trouble keeping it under control. 

     The hummingbirds love this plant; I watch them every morning flying around the arbor bed, passing up the nectar feeder for the real thing--red blooms they love.

    Here's the bigger picture to show how things get out of control in my garden--the cardinal vine has wrapped around the hyacinth bean vine as they both race to the top of the arbor trellis.  Those are cosmos to the left, by the way, planted directly behind the bench, some of which are easily six feet tall.

    Actually, the conclusion to this lesson isn't definitive yet.  Whether these plants normally re-seed so easily or whether they simply survived the mild winter remains to be seen.  I guess I'll know for sure next summer.

    5. Foliage can be just as eye-catching in containers as blooming flowers.
    I admit it--a handsome face can turn my head.  When I am plant shopping in the spring, I am drawn to the rows upon rows of colorful flowering plants.  Oh sure, I like coleus and caladiums, too, and have a hard time choosing my favorites of these to buy.  But I always think of foliage as the accent in a container, not the center attraction.  However, when I finished planting all my containers this spring, I found I had only a few Profusion zinnias left and one extra coleus for the last container.  What to do?  Go shopping for more blooming plants?  Not a good idea, since I always seem to come home with twice as many as I intended to buy.  Besides, I was tired and just wanted to get this finished.  So I planted both coleus in the pot with the remaining zinnias in front.

     'Redhead' and 'Roaring Fire'

    Guess what?  When I come home, the first thing I notice as I drive up the lane is not the bedraggled petunias in the hanging planters or (almost) trailing down the porch planter, it is this pot.  The burgundy and shades of gold of these coleus really stand out against the greenery of the nearby shrubs.  Lesson learned:  plant more pots of primarily (or all) foliage next year!

    6. Butterflies love zinnias.
    Of course, I already knew this--I just wanted an excuse to include this photo:)  Actually, I did learn a new tidbit of information about butterflies this summer.  I attended a talk on butterfly gardens last month where I learned that butterflies enjoy a landing pad where they can rest for awhile, which accounts for their preference for plants like zinnias and coneflowers.

    7. And finally, be patient.  Remember nothing lasts forever.
     There's an old saying in Illinois (and probably every other state) that "if you don't like the weather, just wait a few minutes, and it will change."   I whined much of the summer about the heat and the lack of rain, but August and now September have provided some welcome relief with cooler days and most importantly, some much-needed rainfall.   The garden is starting to revive, and my enthusiasm for tidying up the garden has returned.

    Nothing teaches you patience like trying to photograph a hummingbird:)

    It was a tough summer, but I learned some valuable lessons.  Best of all, my garden survived.

    Wednesday, September 5, 2012

    Book Review: The Language of Flowers

    After a summer's hiatus, the Book Review Club is back to regular monthly meetings!  Just in time, too, as the hot summer kept me indoors most days--especially when the A/C went out--and I spent just as much time reading as gardening. In addition to my favorite genre of mysteries, I read several other books that I want to share with you in the coming months.  Today's selection, The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, is not a gardening book, by the way, but a bestselling novel that I highly recommend for everyone to read.

    Victoria Jones is not an easy young woman to like.  Having just been emancipated from the foster care system and living in a group home for an adjustment period, she has a short time to get her act together and find a job to help pay the rent.  But Victoria makes no attempt to find a job and eventually finds herself homeless, living in a city park, where she plants a small garden.  Defiant and unable to relate to anyone, flowers provide the only happiness in her life.

    Purple Coneflower--"Strength and Health" *

    Eventually, she manages to find a job at a local florist where she begins to create special floral arrangements, not based on color or design so much as on the meanings of the individual flowers.  The owner realizes what a talent Victoria has as customers return, specifically asking for an arrangement from Victoria to cure various heartaches or to spice up their love life.

    Yarrow--"Cure for a broken heart"

    One day Victoria meets a boy from her past, and she is forced to confront a secret trauma from her childhood.  Eventually, she must decide whether she can open her heart enough to share her life with another person.

    Zinnia--"I mourn your absence"

    The novel alternates between the present and the past, scenes from Victoria's childhood.  Although not a mystery, the reader wonders what is this terrible secret that Victoria has harbored for the past ten years?  And why did Elizabeth, the foster mother who taught her about flowers and seemed to be the only person that Victoria ever cared for, give her up?  I kept turning the pages to find out.

    Lilies symbolize majesty, but a daylily represents coquetry.

    The Language of Flowers is an impressive debut novel: an interesting story line, well-developed characters, a plausible ending, and thought-provoking themes. Vanessa Diffenbaugh was herself a foster mother and a teacher for disadvantaged children;  her experience no doubt helped to create the authentic characters of this novel.

    Cosmos--"Joy in Love and Life"

    Anyone who has been involved in the education system or in social services has met a Victoria somewhere along the way.  I know I often wondered when I had a student like this in class, what makes this child so hateful, so unresponsive to kindness and sincere offers of help?  Diffenbaugh’s description of Victoria’s experiences in the foster care system—some of them horrible (though she doesn’t dwell on graphic details, thankfully)--helps to make sense of these kids and makes one want to reach out to them again.  But Victoria’s story does have hope—that the power of unconditional love can eventually touch even the hardest of hearts.

    * The meanings of flowers given here are taken from the glossary at the end of the novel.  The interpretation of various flowers, however, differs from source to source.

    Disclaimer:  No compensation of any kind was received for this review.  I review only books I like and think others would enjoy reading;  I either purchase my own copy or, as in the case of this book, check them out from my local library.  
    To see what others are reading this month, check out more reviews at Barrie Summy's.