Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Hellebores under the covers

I posted a photo of my garden's first Hellebore flower of the season a few weeks ago.  Now the plant is covered in blooms.  I like this plant more and more every year.  Now, I am finding out the flowers are really pretty interesting from an intellectual standpoint, too.

Ken Druse in his book Planthropology writes this about the hellebore:  "The female stigma of a hellebore flower is ready to accept pollen from another flower a week or more before its own male anthers have produced their fertile grains.  Even before the flower opens, bees push their way into the swollen buds in search of pollen, which they do not find, but deposit some from the last ripe anthers they visited."  This is described as a strategy to avoid self-pollination, to keep mixing up the gene pool as much as possible.  

The photo above shows several hellebore flower buds.  The top bud is tightly furled, and I doubt a bee would be able to force its way inside.  The middle bud is a bit looser.  The petals are still closed but not so tightly and there is empty space inside.  I guess this is the stage that Druse is talking about.  The lower flower was also just a bud, not an open flower, at a similar stage to the middle one, when I forced open the petals and peeled one back so I could take a look inside.  You can see the anthers clustered close together, with the five pistils sticking out the center.  If you look back at my earlier post, you'll see the anthers are much more spread out.  It seems to make sense that when they are producing pollen they would be more spread out.  I don't see anything noticeably different about the female parts. 
Avoiding self-fertilization is a good strategy, but hellebores are prolific self-seeders, and although this is  the only plant I have that has produced flowers, I found many seedlings of it this past summer.  Perhaps my neighbors have some hellebores close by, but I think it's much more likely that the plant does self-pollinate when necessary and this strategy is just a way to give pollen from another plant (or another flower on the same plant?) better chances.  The last photo shows the faded first flower of the season, the same as the one pictured on February 15.  Now all its anthers have fallen off, and the ovary at the base of the stigma appears to be beginning to swell.  Maybe I'll get more new plants again this summer!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Macro Monday: Field Pansy

This photo is my contribution to Macro Monday, hosted each week by Lisa at Lisa's Chaos. 
Earlier than any other violet in my yard, I see this absolutely teeny violet in bloom.  I first noticed it in a neighbor's lawn and was actually disappointed I couldn't find it in my own.  It's not like I don't have plenty of other lawn weeds, but I wanted a closer look and didn't want to be too conspicuous inspecting something on my neighbor's property on hands and knees (or, worse, pulling something out of their lawn.  That seems downright antisocial, even though I'm pretty sure they would consider it a weed and not a wildflower).  What I really wanted was a close look at the leaves so that I could identify the species, but it's not easy to differentiate the leaves of a single tiny plant growing in the middle of a weedy lawn.  But today I found it growing in my herb garden.  Previously, I bragged about how well weeded my herb garden is.... oh well.  I was happy to see it.  It was well-enough separated from the nearby parsley and chamomile that I could get a good enough view to look it up in my trusty Peterson's Wildflower Field Guide.  It looks like Viola kitaibelliana, the Field Pansy.  The next picture shows the shape of the leaves.  Note the long, narrow stipules at the base of the upper leafstalks.

Peterson's lists it as "Alien."  It seems to me that many of our lawn weeds are introduced species, rather than native wildflowers.  Years ago, when I first got this field guide and didn't know much, I would pull it out to try to identify every flower I could find growing in the wild.  If I was close to home (i.e. the suburbs), these were generally lawn weeds.  When you think about it, lawn is not really a native habitat here, in the region once blanketed by the Eastern Deciduous Forest.  Forest openings would have briefly been occupied by meadows, but not mowed lawns.  Maybe it's more surprising that some native plants (like the common blue violet) can adapt to living in a lawn.  Many or most of the other common lawn weeds and many meadow wildflowers are probably plants that have long been adapted to grazing by livestock and came over with the earliest Europeans.    

I snapped the last picture to show just how incredibly tiny the bloom is.  That's my index finger, grotesquely larger than life size.  The pansy is out of focus and overexposed because I'm not very good at using my camera one-handed, and it wasn't worth it to set up the tripod for a picture that was going to have my finger in it!  The tininess of the bloom made photographing it a challenge.  First, to get the camera close enough to get a nearly full-frame macro shot, I was close enough to shade the bloom with the camera!  So I had to take the photo from slightly off-center rather than line up with the pansy in the same plane as the camera sensor (as often recommended for macros because of the narrow depth-of-field).  That's OK, I like the slightly oblique view better.  I needed a tripod (I usually do for macros) but couldn't get it close enough. I was stymied for a moment, but just then my husband came out to see what I was up to.  I said "I need a bean bag!" And he said, "what about a bag of rice?"   Part of why I married him is that he's so smart!  Another big part is that he's really nice -- he actually went back inside to get it for me!).   Now the camera was all set up and ready to go, but sunlight on the foliage was making a distracting background.  The bean bag also gave me a free hand to shade the background.  Initially I meant to only shade the hotspot, but it was hard to aim my shadow.  I liked the look of the nearly black background anyway, so I went ahead and triggered the shot.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Why are there Lilliputians in my garden?

The daffodils are starting to open in my garden!  Mostly right now are Ice Follies and an all-yellow trumpet that is probably Carlton or something similar, both of which typically start blooming about now.  But today I found this little squirt, also...
This daffodil was part of a mix of unnamed fragrant seedlings from Brent and Becky's bulbs.  I had to move them last summer to make way for construction of a patio.  I had marked these bulbs as "Early/Short" but they were neither this early nor this short last year!  Just in case it isn't clear just how vertically-challenged this daffodil is, here's another shot...
I have almost no clue why they are like this, this year.  Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I disturbed them before the foliage had fully ripened last year?  But I have other daffodils, Ice Follies, that are also blooming short this year, without having been moved.  Somewhat taller than the unnamed Jonquilla type shown above, this one towers over Strawberry Shortcake at a good eight inches or so.

I have read that tulips can bloom on very short stems if they get insufficient cooling... and in fact it has been unusually warm this year.  But it's hard for me to believe that explanation for several reasons.  I've never heard of it happening with daffodils?  (Have you?)  Ice Follies are naturally very early blooming and are particularly prolific and prevalent around here in Southeastern Virginia where it is common to not have particularly cold winters and I've never seen them bloom short like this.  If it were going to happen, it should have happened last year to a clump of bulbs I planted in February.  I planted them  at the same time that most of the Ice Follies in my garden were blooming!  They bloomed with the late daffodils at the normal height; they are in bloom again right now at the typical Ice Follies time and height.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Book Review: Armitage's Native Plants

Today I am joining HolleyGarden at Roses and Other Gardening Joys for Garden Book Reviews.

Armitage's Native Plants for North American Gardens is a book of encyclopedia-style listings of perennials native to North America.  In general this style of book strikes me as rather dry but I find it useful to have a few reference books in the garden "library".  I tend to start wanting a plant when I see a great photo or read someone's personal  account of it.  Usually, it's when I read "I love this plant for its fragrance" or "it's covered with butterflies" or "brings back memories of grandmother's garden," rather than "this plant lived through deer browsing and survived poor drainage over the winter."  So most of the plants I fall in love with in theory are not necessarily well-suited to whatever conditions I have to give them.  It's useful to have a comprehensive listing where I can specifics.  Armitage's Native Plants is particularly useful to me in this way because Allan Armitage also talks about his experiences gardening in different climates and frequently describes why a certain plant did better in one location than another.

This book also particularly appeals to me because I am already committed to a love of native plants.  I have both natives and non-natives in my garden, but I am always eager to add more native plants.  In fact, I think I am more into native plants that the author of the book, who includes 6 pages of thought provoking musings on native plants in the preface.  Here he explains that the book is "not written for native plant enthusiasts" but for "my daughters ... who would love to try some native plants but don't know where to start."  I believe this distinction is aimed mainly at explaining Armitage's choice of which plants to cover.  He mostly limits his selections to plants that are relatively easy to obtain (although a few rarer ones are thrown in that he particularly likes), and also covers popular cultivars and hybrids between native species in the species accounts.  I definitely understand why some native plant enthusiasts may be put off by the inclusion of cultivars and hybrids, but from the standpoint of availability I agree that it's practical to include them, and I have found this information very useful when trying to determine the species of incompletely-labeled plants I see in catalogs or the nursery.

The entries in this book have all the standard information you would expect to have in such a book, including the basics like sun and soil requirements and USDA hardiness zones.  Additionally, every entry also includes information about the native habitat, which I find even more useful for making an educated guess whether a particular plant will do well in my garden.  The organization of the book is alphabetical by genus, with detailed entries about the most available species in the genus and then a briefer listing of additional less-available species and hybrids.  Each species account is chock full of information excluding extensive lists of cultivars or selections (as well as the straight species) with notes on their garden performance.  Entries also include usage or design tips.  For example Vernonia noveboracensis (New York Ironweed) is described as "a knockout" in bloom but its seven-foot height makes it "more at home in an informal setting" or as "an architechtural feature."  An eye-opening description (for me) accompanies his description of Aster divaricarus.  I had tried to grow this plant already and had already noted that its small blooms would work better in combination with another plant than as a stand-alone garden feature.  However, the extreme floppiness of the stems had put me off and left me beginning to understand why not everyone likes native plants as well as I do.  However, I experienced a minor epiphany when I read Armitage's account and found that he values it specifically for its prostrate habit.  He explains, "since they are prostrate, plants may be placed in the shade of larger plants, and they will grow up and out from the plant."  Now I envision planting it beneath a shrub where it will serve as a "shoes and socks" plant in the fall the way small bulbs do in the spring.

Finally, another great feature of each entry is propagation tips, often by more than one method.  After reading this book, I'm going to try propagating my amsonia by cuttings this year.  It sounds very easy and and I think I'm more likely to actually do this than propagate it by seed, but instructions for both are included.  Instructions for propagation by division are also included, and probably would be easiest of all, except that I don't think my plant is mature enough, which is why I think it's useful to have all the options listed.

One of the best things about this book is Armitage's sense of humor.  I once was lucky enough to see Allan Armitage in person, presenting a talk and slideshow at a local garden event.  His humor and love of plants made this a memorable talk.  In Armitage's Native Plants, his sense of humor pokes out over and over again, even in such a nuts-and-bolts kind of book.  Here is the listing for propagation of Gentiana andrewsii (Bottle gentian) by division:"If a fine colony is established, leave it alone."  And a usage tip (sort of) about yuccas,  "Without a doubt, if they make a Mexican food joint look better, think what they will do for your garden."  In fact, Armitage is unabashedly opinionated and I like that even though I don't always agree with him.  For example, Armitage makes it clear that he doesn't really like milkweeds (Asclepias) but does a good job covering them anyway.  

The only real disagreement I have with this book is with some of the points in the prologue.  Armitage rants "The way some people equate natives with godliness is scary....  If you are going to lecture me about natives behaving themselves, do so while you help me get rid of milkweed and northern sea oats.  They must have missed that lesson."  While I agree with Armitage that natives can be annoyingly aggressive or even destructive to a garden bed (I would add "obedient plant" to the examples he gives), I think it's hugely important to make a distinction between plants being aggressive in a garden setting and plants that are invasive.  Invasive plants can spread into wild areas and crowd out native vegetation, doing irreparable harm to local ecosystems.  If you plant a locally native plant and it spreads out of control in your garden like a weed, it still is not harming local ecosystems, because it is already there along with its natural checks and balances.  However, this is a complex topic probably for another post, and a disagreement with a comment in the prologue is really is neither here nor there in terms of the enjoyment and usefulness I get out of this book.  Like I said, though, the musings he shares in the prologue are all thought provoking.  Anyone who has an opinion on native plants, one way or the other, would find it interesting to read these pages.  The frustrating thing is that it's like half a conversation, and it's hard to talk back!

Still, it's Armitage's personality that makes this a great book.  Unlike most encyclopedia of garden plants, this book is fun to actually read (maybe not cover-to-cover, but in chunks at least).  Like I said at the beginning, personal descriptions of plants tend to draw me in, and this book has those too.  Here's how Armitage describes Pycnanthemum incanum (hoary mountain mint).  "This was the first species [of Pynanthemum] I encountered, and immediately I had to have it for my garden... I never walked by it without giving a leaf or two a gentle rub between thumb and forefinger.  Nor did any visitors to the garden escape un-minted."  After reading this enthusiastic description, I had to have it too, especially when, armed with the information I had read in this book, I was able to recognize it at a local plant sale shortly thereafter.  This is one of those plants (probably like many in this book) that don't look like much in a pot at a plant sale, but it was even better than I hoped in my garden.  Here are three views of it.  The closeup shows that the flowers are not really showy, but it's actually a powdery white texture on the leaves surrounding the blossom that really make this plant awesome.  You can see in the long view how it glows against the dark background of the shady part of my yard.  In the mid-range view, you can see how it combines with the bright magenta of bee balm.

On the other hand, Armitage's exhortation "As soon as you read this, put down the book and purchase this plant [Vernonia lettermannii]" didn't do it for me, although it made me laugh.  Maybe another year....

One final note: I used the word encyclopedia in my initial description, but I was referring to the individual entries for each plant that are systematically packed with information.  However, the book is not comprehensive in scope and that may bother some readers.   It is, obviously, limited to North American natives and, as mentioned above, leaves out most species that are difficult to obtain.  It seems to me that the book may also have an Eastern bias, but I'm not sure about this.  I myself have an eastern bias and am really only interested in plants that I have a chance of growing well in Southeastern Virginia.  I have very little familiarity with native plants from the southwest, the Rockies, or very cold regions of the north.  As mentioned above, Armitage's speaks of his experiences in Montreal and Georgia, and I have a suspicion that readers in the West may not be as happy with the book as I am.  On the other hand, there are certainly entries for western and southwestern natives here, like Agastaches, Camassias and Aquilegias, so I may be wrong.  Western readers should probably try to get a look at the book before buying it.  Personally, I wish Armitage would write a comparable guide to North American native shrubs.  Does anyone know a really good book about native shrubs?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Bloom Day February 2012

Happy Bloom Day!
     I'm joining Carol at May Dreams Garden for Garden Blogger's Bloom Day, when garden bloggers share what's blooming in their gardens on the 15th of each month.  I'm looking forward to seeing everyone's flowers.  I took these photos a few days ahead of time since the 15th falls on a weekday and there's not enough daylight in February for me to have time to take photos on a weekday.  Good thing too, because the next day was a dusting of icy snow that weighed down these blossoms and made them a bit less photogenic.  
     The best new bloom for February is a Hellebore:
Helleborus niger
     This is the only open bloom but there are also lots of buds getting close to opening.  The buds are well hidden inside a lush mass of evergreen leaves.  This bloom was easier to photograph than I thought it would be though.  I think the flower stem continues to lengthen between the bud and bloom stage, probably to protect the buds from those icy dustings of snow.
     The first daffodil opened on February 1st.  It's companions thought it was a bit too forward, and haven't quite ventured out yet, but soon will.
Narcissus, probably "Carlton"
     Around the same time, the first grape hyacinth bloomed and is still open.  This seems very early to me and I don't expect to see any others for quite a while. 
Muscari armeniacum
     Once again, I found a surprise when I went out to look for blooms for Bloom Day.  I was not expecting a summer snowflake (Leucojum aestivum).  The common name of this bulb is not particularly apt, to be sure, but this is the earliest bloom I've seen on it, and it's not in a very warm spot.  I won't look a gift horse in the mouth.  I like them anytime, and am looking forward to the big groups of them I hope to have later in spring.
Leucojum aestivum
     All of what was blooming in January is still blooming now at about the same pace except that the paperwhites are over.  There are still flowers on the mahonia and rosemary and a few early blooms on the Carolina Jasmine.  There are probably more periwinkle (Vinca major) blooms than last month.  Among them I found another surprise.  This bloom has four petals instead of the usual five.  Once I noticed four-petaled periwinkle blooming all over the grounds of Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello.  Yet, I've never seen a four-petaled one in my garden before now.  It was the combination of the purple periwinkle and the burgundy leaves of the nandina that caught my eye, although I don't usually go for burgundy and purple together.  Both Vinca major and Nandina domestica drive me nuts in my garden, all-too-prolific remnants of a previous owner's penchant for planting invasive thugs, still causing never ending heartache and backache at least 10 years after they were planted ... but I still enjoy the color they have to offer.
Vinca major (bloom) and Nandina domestica (foliage)
     In another spot, I have a problematic color combination.  Last year I noticed that the hot pink flowers of the flowering quince clashed horribly with the bright red berries of the nandina.  I should have moved the quince (or cut down the nandina -- I have plenty!) but didn't.  But how confusing... when the quince first started putting out a few flowers this December, there was no problem: they were a perfect match to the nandina! What's causing the flowers to change colors?
Chaenomeles japonica (bloom) and Nandina domestica (berries), Dec. 2011
    I previously had noticed that when I cut stems and forced the blooms indoors, they were a much paler pink, but I was still surprised to see the color change from year to year on the shrub itself.  It must be due to the amount of light it gets, right?  Maybe, but now I have noticed that the current February blooms (fresh blooms, not faded December blooms) are hot pink again. 
Chaenomeles japonica, February 2012
And here is a shot from 2007 when they were an even lighter pink.
Chaenomeles japonica, January 2007
Has anyone else noticed this?  Any other theories about what affects the flower color?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Save the slugs! (Macro Monday)

     This toy turtle is about an inch long, so he's my Macro Monday entree.  Amble on over to Lisa's Chaos to see the other Macro Monday posts.  Yesterday, this little guy winked his little eye at me and said, "don't follow every bit of advice you read."
     In better weather, I often have real turtles visit my garden.  The visitors have included two kinds of turtles.  About once a year in the summer we have an Eastern mud turtle come up from the brackish marsh to dig a hole in the backyard for eggs.  I haven't been lucky enough to see the babies emerging but I just leave the site alone for a few months and hope that all goes well.  More often it is box turtles that visit my yard.  Box turtles' coloring is very variable and I know we have had many many different individuals over the years.  I thought about trying to photograph them to see if I could recognize individuals from year to year, but for the most part they don't stick around and wait for me to get my camera.  I got lucky with Rocky, below.  If I see him again, I hope I will know him by the "M" on the peak of his back.  
     Once while weeding in November, I accidently uncovered this baby box turtle.  I wasn't sure if he was emerging from the nest or digging in to hibernate.  Not knowing if he was coming up or going down, so to speak, I put him back and covered him lightly with duff and leaf litter.  Hopefully he fared well.
     One year when we had a very dry summer, the drought ended with a brief summer downpour.  I took a walk out in the backyard as the rain started to let up and encountered eleven different box turtles, from tiny babies like this one to adults, both male and female.  Considering that this is only a slightly larger than normal suburban lot, I was amazed.
     Usually when I see box turtles in the yard, I happen upon them suddenly, and we startle each other.  The turtle usually pulls its head in its shell and I must be very patient indeed to see it relax again.   If I'm lucky, I'll spot the turtle ambling along when I am sitting relatively still, usually weeding, and I'll be able to observe it without disturbing it.  My encounter with Rocky, pictured above, started like that, but Rocky was quite bold, or else completely oblivious.  He ended up walking directly over my shoe, scrambling up and over like I was a stone or other minor obstacle not to be fussed over, and I was charmed.
     There are lots of books on gardening for birds and butterflies, but not much information about attracting turtles.  Once I saw a box turtle in my yard eating the mock strawberries that naturalize in my lawn and everywhere else.  These aren't edible to people - or rather I should say they aren't palatable.  I've tasted them and am none the worse, but would not eat them any sooner than I'd chew on styrofoam, which is a similar experience.  Now I call them turtleberries and don't weed them quite so aggressively as I once did.  However, berries are a relatively small part of a box turtle's otherwise carnivorous diet.  They much prefer sow bugs, beetles and slugs.  So to attract turtles, should I plant hostas?
     These beautiful hostas (and a blue hydrangea) are in the Norfolk Botanical Garden.  I once had hostas, but they turned into deer.  Actually, they probably were gobbled by both slugs and deer, because I have both.  I don't bother with hostas anymore, but near other plants where I've noticed particularly thick slug populations, I've had good luck trapping them with cheap beer.  At least they die happy.  The slugs seem to be perfectly content with beers I'm not attracted to at all.  A study - yes, an actual scholarly article - by Whitney Cranshaw in 1997 showed that garden slugs prefer Michelob and Budweiser to other American beers, but the best results were with a near-beer product, Kingsbury Malt Beverage.
     An item in the April 2012 issue of Fine Gardening (it comes in the mail bizarrely early) gives a tip for completely eliminating slugs from your yard.  The very thought appalls me.  I'm not a fan of slugs and drown them in Bud as discussed to decrease the pressure on particular plantings.  I have my doubts it could really be possible to completely eliminate slugs anyway, but I'm quite sure I wouldn't want to.  My first instinct is to flinch away from such power.  Massacre the entire population?  Surely there would be unintended consequences.  Mother Nature seems to have a way of making a mountain out of a molehill and I like to use a relatively light-handed approach.  I will leave most of my slugs for my turtle population to deal with.  
     And turtles are not the only slug predators that enchant me in my garden.  There is another species, for whom slugs form a large portion of the diet for the young.  On summer nights when I go to bed, I look out into the yard and see the twinkling of fireflies.  When the fireflies were young larvae, they ate a lot of slugs.  Firefly populations are dropping.  I'm not proposing that this is primarily due to slug bait.  Instead habitat loss and light pollution are believed to be the biggest factors.  Light pollution, because as this site explains, fireflies speak the "language of light" while they are speaking the language of love.  When there is too much light at night, the fireflies' messages get drowned out and fewer young fireflies are born.   This makes me want to make doubly sure all my outdoor lights are turned off at night.  And I think I will go easy on my slugs.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

St. John's Wort

     While I was out doing advance scouting for this month's Garden Blogger's Bloom Day (featured on the 15th of each month at May Dreams Garden), I spotted a sprig of St. John's wort.
Hypericum calcinum, 'Brigadoon'

     If I remember correctly, this is the cultivar Brigadoon, and I have had more than one change of heart since I planted it.  When I saw it in a nursery and bought it, it was because I thought St. John's wort was a U.S. native plant. In fact, there are some native species of St. John's wort, but this is Hypericum calycinum and is native to southern Europe and southwestern Asia.  It's not that I object outright to non-native plants.  There are lots of non-natives I enjoy in my garden.  But in this case, I was experimenting with a bed that was to be all native.  It turns out that this was not the only mistake I made in my selection and some of the other expats are staying put for now, but the St. John's wort made me nervous because it started spreading at some distance away from the parent plant by underground runners.  
     I've also had a few changes of heart about the color.  I like this interesting coloring as a seasonal feature.  But after I bought it, I read up on it (um, yeah, not the wisest sequence of actions) and my interpretation of what I read was that it would be this color all year round.  Yuck!  This doesn't suit my idea of summertime, particularly in a bed that is supposed to be naturalistic.  Well, it turned out that for me the coloring is indeed seasonal.  It stays peachy orange a little too long in the spring for my taste, but is light green in the summer.  Good.
     Now I've moved it to another spot, where its spreading, supposedly weed-suppressing nature will be more appreciated.  The peachy colored sprig pictured above was discovered yesterday in the original spot, along with one other.  This is why I moved it, but I'm hopeful that pulling these two sprigs will be the end of it in that spot, hopeful I've mostly escaped the worst of the trouble.  In the new spot, I won't mind if it spreads a bit; there's nothing delicate there for it to clobber.  Hopefully it will stop short of being invasive, and not join the club of nightmares previous owners have deeded to me: wisteria, nandina, privet, English ivy, the list goes on.   But I'll keep an eye on it.  
Hypericum calycinum 'Brigadoon' in more shade
     One last surprise.  In the new spot, it's not peach colored right now, even the new growth.  How does anyone ever manage to actually design a garden!  For me, the plants are just not cooperative!  If this individual doesn't color up, it may end up in the compost pile after all the trouble it's giving me.  But the peachy colored sprigs do look pretty nice, especially against a pine-straw covered background.  Maybe I'll find another new spot for it in a little more sun.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Taking Root

     I learn a lot about what will grow in my garden by trial and error ... mostly error.  Most of the plants I buy and plant are "experiments" -- to me at least, not that they are particularly rare -- and many of them don't survive one or another of the challenging conditions they face: humid summers, extremely variable rains, indifferent drainage, deer browsing, an inept gardener.  So when something grows well for me, I want more.  Last year I decided to try to focus more on easy propagation techniques.
     Actually, propagating a plant from a cutting was the very beginning of my fascination with gardening many years ago.  I came to gardening as an adult with no prior experience.  When I got my first real job, I became friends with one of my coworkers, Nina, who gave me a cutting of her Pothos houseplant and a plastic water bottle to root it in.  Amazing!  I was enthralled by the fact that we could create new plants by rooting cuttings in water!  I did it over and over again, giving some of the plants to other friends.  Nina let me learn the advanced lesson on my own.  Variagation is a genetic expression that can vary on different parts of the plant.  My pothos sported some leaves with less variagation than the original, but I didn't notice or attach any significance to this.  Variagation slightly reduces vigor, and the greener sections grew more vigorously.  The vigorous growth made them more obvious targets for my uneducated clippers and after several generations (I don't remember how many intermediate plants I once had anymore) I now have what is probably the only totally unvariagated Pothos that anyone has ever bothered to keep.  But I love it anyway, my stringy, plain little child.

     Sometime after that I learned how to propagate cuttings of cushion mums and did that for a few years.  In late spring, I would fill a flat with potting soil and snip cuttings from various mums that had been propagated from the ones I found growing in my yard when we first moved in.  These mums would generally bloom in the fall and come back in the spring (to be propagated again) and then bloom again starting in July.  They had a much looser style than the ones in the garden centers because I was not giving them professional haircuts, but I like the loose style.  The July blooming drove me crazy though because I thought mums were supposed to flower in autumn!  That's when I realized that cushion mums are a devious plot of the nursery industry.  Oh well, I still like them, but not as much because they are a bit of trouble.  Now I have real perennial mums and just buy the "annual" ones if I happen to get the urge in the fall or maybe have a party (the photo shows a flock of very rare birds that arrived for my husband's 40th birthday party.  You can see both the pink perennial mums and the burgundy cushion mums together to the right of the gate).
Flamingo migration and my front garden in early November
     While I was propagating cuttings of mums, I learned that the same exact technique and timing works for other plants.  I rooted a bunch of rosemary cuttings this past spring.  I'm hoping that by next Christmas they will be a nice size, still in pots, to give as Christmas gifts.  I've also made new Speedwell (Veronica spicata), Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), and Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) this way.  This year, I also successfully rooted cuttings of Carolina jasmine (Gelsemium sempervirens) -- visible in the flamingo picture climbing up the right side of the porch -- because I want to put some more of this fantastic native in my yard. And Lemon verbena (Lippia citriodora) because I love it in tea and especially its clear lemon (not citronella) scent; yet it's not really quite hardy and I'm tired of losing it.  Now I have more plants so hopefully the little ones will survive in their pots in the garage if the bigger one doesn't make it.
Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)
     Along these lines, some people root cuttings of annuals and keep them indoors over the winter to plant out again in the spring.  I don't like buying annuals every year except once in a while if I want to splurge to fill a hole (like for the flamingo party).  Usually I just do without annuals, except self-seeders (another awesome way to get new plants, a topic for another post).  But I think I will buy a few this year that I would not normally buy and see if I can keep them this way.  I'm thinking I would like some scented geranium; also some coleus with pink in the leaves to underplant my Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana).  This is another fantastic native that gets purple berries in the late summer and early fall.  When I saw the unusual color of the berries I bought a plant, and this year in particular it was just outstanding.  But it's in a slightly out-of-the-way spot and I want a companion nearby that will draw attention to the berries when they are present.  I haven't figured out what that companion should be yet: I don't have anything that is quite right that's already growing in my yard and there are some aggressive groundcovers already present so I do not want to put a delicate untested perennial in that spot.  But a colorful annual might be just the thing.  I wouldn't need to finesse the timing too much and don't need to worry if it gets clobbered.  But what if it does well and I like it?  Then I would want it again next year and might not be able to find the same cultivar.  Aha! But coleus can be rooted in water!
      Surely nothing could be easier than rooting in water, the magic of the Pothos plant all over.  I recently learned of some other plants I like that root in water.
  • Mexican petunia (Ruellia brittoniana): I rooted cuttings in water because it could be done, only to pitch them in the compost months later because I actually don't need any more Mexican petunia and feel ambivalent about sharing a potentially invasive plant with friends.  

New roots on a gardenia cutting
  • Basil: this was a miracle!  I have been growing basil for years but didn't know they rooted in water.  It's probably too much trouble for me to try to keep a basil plant alive in the dry house all winter and I'll continue growing them from seed in the spring.  Rooting basil cuttings solves a different and more aggravating basil problem, however: bolting.  I knew you have to pinch off all the flowers or the basil leaves turn bitter.  Too many times have I missed the deadline and not even gotten to save my mature plants as pesto because I was hoping I could keep getting fresh leaves just a little longer.  I pinched and I pinched, but once the plant started flowering, there really seems to be nothing I can do.  Pinching off the flowers maybe buys a few days, but the herb is doomed once the process begins.  It's harder for me to grow basil from seeds in midsummer since it's hard to keep the seedbed moist all the time so succession planting is a bit of a non-starter.  That is, except when I failed spectacularly at pinching off the flowers and it actually self-seeded, but that left a big gap in the late summer with no basil.  However, this year I rooted several cuttings in water and had brand new basil plants to put out at intervals.  Some of the cuttings seemed to flower almost immediately, causing more frustration, but others were even more lush and beautiful and tasty than the original.  I haven't quite worked out the variables yet, but this is definitely worth doing again this year.
  • Gardenia: another miracle!  I read somewhere that gardenia can be rooted in water and my reaction was "are you kidding?"  For me, it was unexpected that a woody plant would root so easily, since the plants I knew about were all fleshy annuals.  I cut some right away, probably at a terrible time of year to do it (just a month or two ago) and it worked!  For some time I've realized my gardenia is not very happy in its spot, but I'm sure it would not survive being moved so I have simply suffered along with it.  But if I can propagate it this easily, I can try it out in multiple spots all over the yard and hopefully learn what it really wants. 
While I was potting up this rooted cutting this weekend, I also took cuttings from my Golden Showers rose.  I read a lovely story in Greenprints magazine by Georgia A. Hubley about preserving a rose by rooting cuttings in a garden bed under a glass jar.  This reminded me that I had rooted rose cuttings in a garden bed a few years ago.  When I did it then, I was pruning the rose and listening to Felder Rushing's Gestalt Gardener podcast while I worked.  By a coincidence I took to be fate, Rushing was talking about rooting cuttings of roses in a garden bed.  He suggested taking a handful of cuttings and putting them into a well-worked bed that gets regular attention.  Whatever watering and attention the plants in the bed get would benefit the cuttings as well.  As it happened, I had just planted a new shrub in improved soil nearby so I took the opportunity.  I didn't really believe any of these cuttings would root but one did and grew new leaves and even one tiny flower while still just a foot tall or less under my shrub.  Eventually I knew I would have to move it, but I actually didn't have any place to put it.  I think there may be only one spot in my yard that is protected enough not to be nibbled by deer and the parent rose is in that spot (you can see its single November bloom in the flamingo photo too, right in front of the porch).  Golden Showers is not a small plant either; actually it's huge.  I was not going to be able to shoehorn the little offspring into another bed.  I ended up giving the new plant to another friend who had suffered a rose disaster when people he hired to power wash his house had an accident with the bleach.  I was happy to be able to help.  But why would I propagate a plant when I have no place to put it?  I don't know, but it was cheaper and more fun than buying a plant I don't have a spot for.  It's not like I've never done that before.  And this was not the last time either.  I just made some more cuttings of Golden Showers to give the glass jar method a try.  
Newly stuck rose cuttings
I'm hoping I'll be even more successful with this method, since the cuttings should not dry out as easily as they might in the open air.  But I should have taken cuttings of my Virginia Rose instead (or in addition).  This is another great native, which I bought at Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson.  It is very happy in my garden but I have never seen it for sale locally.  OK, I said there was only one spot for a rose, but I make an exception for the Virginia Rose.  I planted it surrounded by a wire cage to protect it from deer while it got established and now it is so tall that most of the growth is too high for them to reach.  It's behind other shrubs which mostly disguise the wire cage (which probably isn't necessary any more anyway) and the rose spreads and scrambles as it likes.  It only blooms for a short time each year but very abundantly.  If I had multiple plants, I'd just put them here and there and let them do what they like.  Most of the time, I'd probably forget about them (like unfortunately I did when I was taking cuttings this weekend) but June would be just glorious with them blooming all over the yard.  I guess I know what I should do this weekend.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Macro Monday - Rosehips

     These are the hips of Golden Showers rose, one completely dried out and one a little more fresh.  I don't know why it never occurred to me to cut one open before to see what it looks like inside.  I think the fibers between the seeds are really wild-looking.  Rose hips are edible, and a good source of Vitamin C, but I've never tried them.  I suppose there must be differences in palatability from one variety of rose to another but I have to say these ones don't look too appealing as food.  I have had various flavored teas with rosehips as an ingredient, and I find them appalling, but I bet I would like the taste more in jam.  Varieties with smaller hips are good for attracting and feeding birds.  In fact Rosa multiflora is too good at attracting birds, and has conscripted them to spread it into natural areas where it tends to strangle out native flora.  Sad though I think this is, I have very fond memories of a road trip once while the feral roses were blooming.  What a treat to smell roses while coasting down the highway doing 60 mph!  
     Today I'm joining Lisa's Chaos for Macro Monday.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Moist, well-drained soil, only a legend?

     I'm looking at the seed and plant catalogs and dreaming of a better garden.  So many plants I covet!  I try to read the copy with a critical eye, trying to decide if a plant can really be successful in my garden with only ordinary luck and with the ordinary level of effort I can give.  According to the catalog descriptions, it seems that most plants require "constantly moist, well-drained soil".  I have some spots in my garden with moist soil, especially on days like this after a half-inch of drizzly rain fell last night.  I have lost lots of plants in these spots.  They don't like "wet feet".  I have other spots in my garden that don't have the problem of wet feet, some with excellent drainage indeed (i.e. pots).  Plants in these spots tend to gasp and wilt in our hot summers because I don't have time to water twice a day.  I had trouble even visualizing where constantly moist, well-drained soil could be found or what it would look like.
Lobelia cardinalis
     Until I visited Virginia's Shenandoah National Park in August and had an epiphany.  I found this gem of moist, well-drained soil, a Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) growing in the wild here.   So, here's the vital clue about where to find constantly moist, well-drained soil ... on the rocky ledges surrounding a waterfall!
Dark Hollows Falls, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
     Here is a slightly wider view of the Cardinal Flower.
Lobelia cardinalis in very moist, very well-drained soil
Dark Hollows Falls, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
     We had to wait for another photographer to finish photographing the falls from the one dry spot that would give a full head-on view, and more photographers were waiting for us before we were done.  So the photo above is obviously not such an original composition.  While I waited, I climbed up on a ledge to get a different viewpoint and found a big colony of Turtlehead (Chelone species) which was unfortunately too shaded to photograph.  I had lost some Turtlehead in my garden during a too-dry summer.  Fortunately, not all the plants I admire require constantly moist, well-drained soil, and even some of the ones that are described that way in the catalogs seem to take the conditions I have for them reasonably well once established.  But now I know where to move to if I want a garden full of these treasures.  When I can have a garden on the banks of a waterfall, I can have them all.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

What does a groundhog know, anyway?

Daffodil, probably "Carlton"
A few days ago was Groundhog's Day and Punxsutawny Phil got spooked by his shadow again, the wimp.  So apparently we're in for another six weeks of winter.  I probably can't complain since it doesn't seem like we've had much winter at all so far.  Even though it hasn't been too cold, though, I miss having lots of flowers and growth in the garden.  So, despite not being nearly as fed up with winter as I would normally be at this time of year, I was very excited to see the first daffodil of "spring" in my garden.  The flower bud was fat and fully colored already early on Wednesday morning when I had to leave town for a few days, so I expect it first bloomed on that day, February 1.  That's the earliest I recall having daffodil blooms (except for winter-blooming paperwhites) but it's only a couple weeks early and it looks like the rest in the clump will be closer to the normal schedule.  Still, as a harbinger of spring, this bloom is more than welcome in my garden.