Thursday, September 26, 2013

Wildflower Wednesday: Signs of Fall

Is there anything better than a perfect fall day?  Cooler temperatures means you welcome the sun shining down rather than complaining at the discomfort.  The air seems crisper and full of pleasant aromas.  The song of birds and humming of insects seems louder as they enjoy the bounty of the season.   This is the time of year, next to spring, that I enjoy best.

Blackberry lilies in July
Though the garden is slowly dying back, and blooms are not as obvious as in July or even August, there is still some beauty to be found.  The Blackberry lilies Belamcanda Chinensis--which I struggled to get started here--have finally taken off and even multiplied.

Though the bright orange blooms of this plant have long since faded away, the seed pods they leave behind are just as striking, I think.  The papery pods open up in September, revealing the reason for their common name.  Though not a true native, Blackberry Lily is often included in a list of Illinois wildflowers.

This is also the time of year when things get a bit wild, and I don't just mean the disheveled look of my garden.  The "wild things" that looked like weeds all summer long in the butterfly garden have finally justified my allowing them to stay.  Goldenrod, not a fancy hybrid but the native kind, has been blooming since August .

Not a single one of these plants has been purposely planted by me.  For the most part, the goldenrod has been pretty well-behaved, staying within the confines of the butterfly garden.  But a few escapees have traveled elsewhere, and as long as they continue to be polite, I let them stay.  Actually, I think the bright yellow blooms contrast nicely with the dark sedum in the arbor bed, one of those happy accidents that I enjoy.

The goldenrod also goes well with the other rambunctious wild things in the butterfly garden, native asters. The mass of asters in this area all started from one, maybe two, purple plants purchased several years ago.

Somewhere down the line, the purple parents produced light pink progeny.

And now we also have a deeper pink offspring.

Purple or pink or a shade in between, I don't care; I've let Nature take her course in producing these.  The only interference I've done is to cut them back in May or June so that they don't flop so much come bloom time.  The bees don't care what color these are either.  In fact, the absence of bees in all the above photos is due to the lack of my photographic skill and no other reason, because both the goldenrod and asters have been covered with all kinds of critters all fall.

Evidence that I have let Mother Nature take her course--too much so, sometimes--can be seen in the very front of the butterfly garden.  I am guessing this is some type of aster, but I really don't know.  Whatever it is, it is something I would generally classify as a weed.  But it does look rather pretty right now in bloom, so I'll let it stay for the moment.  Heaven knows, I have enough other weeds to keep me busy for now.

One aster that I can positively identify is this one: 'October Skies' Aster oblongifolius, or more properly, Symphyotrichum oblongifolium. A cultivar of the native Aromatic aster, it was planted in the arbor bed to provide some much-needed late color.  By next week, it should be a mass of light blue blooms just in time for October.

Another reason I love fall, especially this year, is that we've had more butterflies than I've seen all the rest of the year.  The scarcity of Monarchs in particular is a concern for many of us, so I was happy to have this visitor stop by last weekend.  He enjoyed one of my favorite non-natives, the zinnias, and to my delight eventually settled on the 'Zowie Yellow Flame'--perfect color coordination, don't you think?

Wildflower Wednesday is officially celebrated the fourth Wednesday of every month, but is celebrated every day of the year by our hostess Gail of Clay and Limestone.  You're welcome to join in to honor those native plants that provide so much more than just a pretty face.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

September Bloom Day and Some Overdue Thank-Yous

Can you hear it?  The unfamiliar pitter patter on the roof?  I'd show you a photo, but I don't want to get my camera wet.  Yes, it is raining!  We've had so little rain the past six weeks that every drop is a cause for celebration.  Thankfully, I took a few last photos for Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day just before the rain began.

We are definitely heading into fall here despite the past week's hot temperatures. Summer flowers have faded, and asters are just starting to bloom.  One thing I have tried to add to the garden the last few years is more late summer/early fall color.  Caryopteris 'Summer Sorbet' fits the bill perfectly, beginning to bloom in mid-August and continuing through the fall. Notice, too, the switchgrass--Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah'--behind it, another fall favorite.

I enjoy the variegated foliage of this Caryopteris all summer; the blue blooms are just the icing on the cake.

I'm not the only one who enjoys this plant, obviously.

I knew the bees and butterflies love this plant, but I didn't realize hummingbirds did, too.

 This will probably be the last chance this year to show some annuals for Bloom Day, so a quick photo here of just a few in the arbor bed--Zahara Zinnia 'Starlite' on the left with Salvia 'Victoria Blue' and 'White' behind them and Zinnia 'Zowie Yellow Flame' in front.

I just realized I showed another close-up of 'Zowie' for last month's Bloom Day, but I can't say enough good things about this zinnia.  Easy to grow, still blooming its head off, and such a kaleidoscope of colors in every bloom!  My only regret about showing it again will be if I find out next spring all the seed is sold out, because everyone else ordered it, too:)

Many of summer's blooms are still going strong, but rather than repeat anything I've shown in previous posts, I want to focus on two blooms I haven't shown all year.  First is a new bloom for me--yes, this is an Azalea blooming in September!  At last year's Spring Fling in Asheville, many of us took advantage of the offer from Southern Living  for a free trial plant. Most people received their plants last fall, but I opted to wait until this spring for mine.  I was expecting one plant, but I received four!  Two Pieris Japonicas and two Encore Azaleas.  By the time I got the azaleas planted, we were in the middle of a June heat spell, and I worried whether they would survive.  But I've been diligent about watering them well, and I'm thrilled to see one full of small budding blooms.  I'm excited to have my first-ever azalea blooming next spring, but to have one that blooms again in late summer is a double bonus!  Thank you, Southern Living.

The second plant has been blooming all summer--'Wendy's Wish' Salvia hybrid, shown here in front of the Amsonia hubrichtii that is just starting to take on its fall golden glow.  I've been bad about deadheading 'Wendy,' so it's hard to get a good photo of the whole plant.

Instead, here's a close-up of one flowerstalk in gorgeous full bloom.  A few years ago I purchased a 'Wendy's Wish' at a local garden center, and I fell in love with it.  But it is an annual here, and after that year I could never find it again.  This spring dear sweet Cindy of My Corner of Katy contacted me and asked if I'd like one since they were readily available in her area.  I replied quickly with a definite "yes," and she soon sent me not one, but two!  According to garden superstition, you are not supposed to say "thank you" when another gardener gifts you with a plant, so I'll let someone else offer a note of thanks to Cindy . . .

Mr.Hummer says, "Thank you, thank you!"  This Salvia along with the 'Black and Blue' Salvia are the hummingbirds' favorite plants in my garden.  Both have similar blooms, but 'Wendy' grows quite a bit larger than 'Black and Blue,' growing to three feet tall or more and just as wide.  Because the hummingbirds have been so wild about this plant, I'm going to campaign the local nurseries to stock it next year.  Even though it's not hardy in my zone 5b/6 garden, it's definitely worth planting every year!

What's blooming in your garden this September?  To compare notes, check out other Bloom Day posts at May Dreams Gardens where Carol is celebrating fall blooms.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Lessons Learned From the Vegetable Garden

“The more you know, the more you know you don't know.”(Aristotle)

I'd like to paraphrase Aristotle just a little:  "The more I learn about gardening, the more I realize how much more I have to learn." I've often said that I still consider myself somewhat of a newbie gardener. Just when I'm feeling rather smug that I have acquired enough knowledge to call myself a true gardener, I learn some new things that make me realize how little I really know.  In thinking about lessons learned this past season, the most memorable lessons came from my vegetable garden.  That's rather ironic considering I have been growing vegetables far longer than growing flowers or other ornamentals.  It just goes to show that learning never stops.

Photo taken in early July when everything still looked green!

Lesson 1:  Newspapers and straw make an excellent mulch.  My vegetable garden isn't very big--somewhere between 120-150 square feet--but it's big enough to produce enough for us, and it's as much as I can handle.  This is probably the only time you'll see a photo of it, because usually by mid-summer it's a weedy mess.  (Yes, I know, you can spot some weedy grass in the foreground, but let's just ignore that for now, shall we?)  I vowed--once again--not to let it get out of control this year and put down a layer of newspapers between all the rows, and then covered that with straw.  Most years I put down straw around the tomatoes, but this was the first time I used both coverings in the whole garden.  Weedy grasses are my nemesis here, and they still managed to find a place to grow in the rows of vegetables.  But I would pull them out as I harvested beans or greens, and I was pleased that they didn't pop up between the rows as usual.  Both the straw and newspapers eventually decompose and add more nutrients to the soil, an added benefit.  Using this type of mulch is certainly not a new idea, but I finally learned my lesson that taking the time to put down mulch immediately after weeding is well worth the effort in the long run.

Lesson 2:  Squash bugs have won the battle in my garden.  See this pretty blossom and baby yellow squash?  This was early July; fast forward two weeks, and this pretty picture had turned into wilting leaves and shriveled fruit, telltale signs of a squash bug invasion.  Sure enough, those nasty little creatures were swarming all over the leaves; I sprayed them off with a diluted soap mixture, but the damage had been done.

Years ago, I would have sprayed these plants with Carbaryl at the first sign of these pests, but since I've gone pesticide-free, that isn't an option anymore.  I've tried several organic methods of pest control, though admittedly not very diligently, but nothing has worked.  I've learned that some adults can overwinter in the garden; because of this, it's a good idea to rotate placement of cucurbits from year to year or even to avoid planting them the following year.  So, I'm waving the white flag in surrender--no squash in my garden next year!  These little pests will have to find a new place for dinner . . . I just hope it's not in my friend's garden. You see, if a friend has a successful harvest, you don't have to worry--she will be more than happy to share all those extra zucchinis and summer squash with you:)

'Golden Guardian' marigolds, touted to be especially good at keeping insect pests away.

Lesson 3:  Pay attention to spacing recommendations and heights given on seed packets.
Hmm, this seems to be a recurring theme with me . . .  whether I have 100 square feet or 1000 to plant in, I always seem to want to pack in more plants than I should.  Aside from the green beans which sprawled over the gap between rows or the cucumbers that sprawled everywhere, the specific problem I'm referring to here were the marigolds.  I usually plant a row or two of marigolds at the front of the vegetable garden, partly as a pest deterrent, but also for ornamental purposes.    But this spring I did a little research in companion planting and decided to plant the marigolds in the middle of the plot, nearer the squashes and other plants they were supposed to protect. 

My first--and only--pepper just now ripening.

Obviously, they didn't discourage the squash bugs one bit.  But they also grew so tall and spread in width that my few pepper plants were lost beneath them!  I reluctantly pulled a few of the marigolds to give the peppers some sunlight, but it may have been too late.  Only one of three pepper plants has gotten big enough to produce some fruit.  Next year the marigolds are going back to being a front border.

'Rainbow Lights' Swiss Chard

Lesson 4: Don't be afraid to try something new.  With a small garden, I don't have room for everything and have to make choices about what to plant.  Fresh tomatoes are the whole reason for vegetable gardening, in my husband's opinion, and they take up a lot of room. By the time I plant green beans--another family favorite--spinach, leaf lettuces, carrots, cucumbers for my son, and the aforementioned doomed squashes, there isn't a lot of space left.  For the past few years I had some flowering kale that came back each year, but I removed it this year to make room for the tomatoes that had to be rotated to the south side.  Instead of that ornamental kale, I decided to plant swiss chard and a smaller kale, 'Dwarf Blue Curled.'

My daughter was on a juicing kick earlier this spring and brought home bunches of kale to put into her smoothies. Why not grow this new "super food" myself, I thought?  Well, both the chard and kale plantings were a success, but I must be honest that I've only admired the chard for its pretty looks and haven't actually tried to eat it.  As for the kale, I did make some kale chips, which my older daughter recommended, but I don't think I'll recommend my recipe . . .  I did put some in the freezer and plan to freeze some more before the end of the season.  Winter sounds like a good time to try some of the many recipes for kale I added to
my Pinterest board over the summer:)   The juicer, by the way, is collecting dust at the bottom of my pantry.

Swallowtail caterpillar on fennel--taken in 2009.

Lesson 5:  Nature can be cruel. Every year I make sure to leave a little space in the vegetable garden for the butterflies.  Dill and fennel are host plants for the swallowtails, and my grandkids enjoy finding the caterpillars crawling on them in late summer.  Earlier this summer, I was delighted to find many tiny black creatures--the first instar larvae--on the dill one day.  When I thought to check them again a few days later, though, they were all gone.  What had happened to them??  It wasn't until I read someone's blog about raising caterpillars, too, that I realized all these little catts had probably become dinner for the birds.  I like birds, too, of course, and they're welcome to most of the insects they can find here, but not the swallowtail catts!  It made me sad, especially since we've had so few butterflies this year, but unfortunately, that is all part of the cycle of nature. Perhaps next year I'll put some netting over the dill and fennel to protect these delicate little creatures.

One lesson that I learn every year from the vegetable garden, more so than any other place, is that gardening is unpredictable.  One year I have an explosion of zucchini, and the next year the fruit shrivels on the vine.  One year the tomatoes get blight, and the next--like this one--I have so many that I'm making tomato juice and sauce for the freezer twice a week just to keep up with all the tomatoes!  The vegetable garden reminds me each year that some things are out of my control, and that nature has the ultimate upper hand. I've learned to roll with the punches and shrug off one year's disasters--after all, there's always a clean slate to start with next spring.

Finally, I can't resist one last lesson that has nothing to do with vegetable gardening whatsoever.  Though the butterflies have been missing this year, there has been a flurry of hummingbird activity here.  For years I purchased hummingbird nectar mix at a local big box store, thinking the red nectar added some extra attraction for the birds.  But mid-summer I started making my own nectar--1 part sugar to 4 parts water--and the hummers love it!  No more red dye for my sweet little visitors!  I'm glad they're getting fueled up for the long flight south they will soon make.

Thanks as always to Beth of Plant Postings for hosting this quarterly meme on Lessons Learned in the Garden. It's always helpful to reflect on the past season's successes and failures, not only to keep from making the same mistakes again, but also to appreciate and take satisfaction in all that went well in the garden.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Book Review: "The Secret Keeper"

Sixteen-year-old Laurel Nicholson sits in a treehouse dreaming of her new beau, ignoring the family birthday party celebrations going on not far from her.  Suddenly a strange man appears at their back door, and, feeling a sense of dread, she peers down to watch him.  As her mother approaches the man, Laurel witnesses a shocking crime that makes her question her mother's character.  The incident is never discussed in the family again, but Laurel is haunted by it the rest of her life.

Fifty years later, Laurel, now a successful actress, returns to the family farm in the English countryside along with her siblings to celebrate their mother's ninetieth birthday. Realizing her mother hasn't long to live, Laurel is determined to find out the truth of that fateful day.  As her mother drifts in and out of consciousness and from present to past, Laurel gently asks questions to evoke those long-buried memories.  Dorothy's answers come in bits and pieces, only arousing Laurel's curiosity even more:

"I made so many many mistakes." Her cheeks were moist with seeping tears.  "Love, Laurel, that's the only reason to get married. For love."

But what mistakes had Dorothy made? Laurel is sure her parents had a perfect marriage, and her own childhood was idyllic, surrounded by a loving family. With even more questions unanswered, Laurel begins to follow the few clues she has.  Her research leads her to delve into the lives of two other people who seemed to play an important role in Dorothy's past: her former beau Jimmy and good friend Vivien.  As Laurel unearths more and more information, she thinks she has come up with the secret from Dorothy's life during the London Blitz, but not even she is prepared for the surprising truth at the end.

Poppy seed heads--my garden might be called "the forgotten garden" by this time of year:)

I was first introduced to the writings of Kate Morton when a friend recommended The Forgotten Garden last year.  I loved it!  In some ways I preferred it to The Secret Keeper, but probably because I enjoyed the different time periods and the storyline of the first book. On the other hand, The Secret Keeper is a more satisfying read.  Like The Forgotten Garden, it deals with a family whose hidden secrets have affected them over several generations,  but this new novel is easier to follow. In both novels, Morton jumps from one time period to another, but Garden had so many settings that I found myself re-reading earlier parts to remember how the characters and time periods related.  In The Secret Keeper she is more successful at keeping the reader in suspense while at the same time not confusing the reader.  The ending was a total surprise to me, but I realized that all the details from the past suddenly made sense.

Part mystery, part historical fiction, and part family saga, these two books have me hooked on reading more of Kate Morton's works.  The Secret Keeper is sure to be another bestseller for her.

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@Barrie Summy

After a summer hiatus, The Book Review Club is back to regular monthly meetings.  And as a reminder, I only review books I like, and I am never compensated in any way for books reviewed here.  My copy of The Secret Keeper came from my local library.