Category Archives: plants

Flowers That Count

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Carolina Jessamine. Took three years before it wanted to flower again.

Weird quirk, I admit—but I am secretly convinced that flowers don’t count if they were on the plant when I bought it.  So I can plant a plant with flowers currently on it, but those are not MY flowers—they belong to some greenhouse keeper somewhere else—until next year, when if the flowers return, I get to claim them.

On the other hand, if the plant doesn’t have flowers when I buy it, and I plant it, and then it flowers, they do belong to me, assuming that a suitable time has elapsed (i.e. at least a couple of weeks.)

I don’t claim to be logical about this.

So none of the annuals count, except the zinnias that I grow from seed, and the black-eyed susans didn’t count the first year but they count now, but the sundrops did count the first year because it was like a month before they flowered.

None of this particularly matters except in vague personal satisfaction that I have made a plant happy enough to flower, but there y’are. (Bugs and birds, for whom I grow most of these things, are completely uninterested in these concerns, of course.)

My Japanese roof iris just flowered, although I don’t have photos. Japanese roof iris is an interesting little plant, and supposedly tough as nails—I stuck it in a trouble-spot that’s deep shade most of the day, gets two hours of murderous afternoon sun, and is also under a downspout and thus perpetually soggy. It’s surrounded by native Carex sedges, which I know will do fine there, but I’m hopefully on the iris, since I’m a sucker for Japanese iris, and this one is interesting in that it was traditionally grown on thatched roofs, owing to a command by some shogun or other that because the country was at war, all available arable land would be used for food crops.  The iris weren’t even grown because they’re beautiful, but because the root was used for cosmetics.

The following flowers are currently flowering, and make me stupidly happy.


Baptisia, "Carolina Moonlight" --- Seems to flower a week or so before the purple ones.

Lessons Learned…

By | My Garden, plants | One Comment

So today I put plants in the new pond.

This proved more complicated than I expected.

Turns out that potting soil floats. Who knew? Even weighed down with rocks…well…let’s just say that my shiny new pond now appears to have been used as a toilet by something with a colon the size of a jet engine and a diet sorely lacking in fiber.

I believe I will call the pond “Lake Learning Experience.”

So apparently I need to go buy a net or something to skim grunge out of it.  The plants have been placed…more or less…and consist of native horsetail (contained in pots–under “Spread” the nursery had simply written “Watch out!”) an adorable variant called “Tiny Horsetail” which is less invasive and very wee, some sweet flag and Louisiana iris. The sweet flag and the iris are largely experimental–we’ll see if they actually thrive in those conditions, or if in a few weeks I’ll be hauling them out and planting them pond-side instead.  The horsetail, which would apparently thrive in the bowels of hell, is what I had really planned to have growing in the pond anyway, but I’m not gonna complain if I can get the Louisiana iris to grow.

They’re all in, anyway. I got covered in mud and stress-tested the drainage around the edges of the pond (So far, so good! We’ll see how it does when it rains!) and one of the horsetails is heeled over at about a thirty degree angle, but no one died or fell in, and that’s the important thing…


By | My Garden, plants | 2 Comments

Ladies and gentlemen, I have done the improbable.

I have conquered Mt. Mulch!

I mulched things I had not intended to mulch, I mulched things that man was probably not MEANT to mulch, my forearms are almost as toned as when I was doing serious ceramics, and there’s a future bed in the back currently under about eighteen inches worth that will hopefully turn into compost by the time I get around to actually making a bed out of it…but the pile is gone.

Next year, five cubic yards! I’ll probably need that much to mulch all the new beds I had to put in because I ordered too much in the first place, ashes to ashes, mulch to mulch, world without end.

I celebrated by planting seeds. Some of them were carefully and deliberately chosen, like the Dragon Tongue bush beans and the Mexican Sour Gherkin cucumbers, but the majority were a few random seed packets to fill in holes in the landscape until the perennials fill in. So there’s a couple of packs of zinnias broadcast randomly through the beds out front—zinnias are awesome as hole fillers in this climate, and while they reseed vigorously all year, I don’t know if the seeds survive our winters very well, since I haven’t seen a single volunteer this spring. I also planted some nasturtiums along a couple of the beds, and figured “What the hell, worth a try,” with a pack of false indigo. (False indigo does fantastic down here, but I’ve never tried it from seed–it doesn’t set seed very well in the wild, owing to parasites.) And in the Death Bed run by weeds and (hopefully) slowly being conquered by judicious application of mountain mint and sporadic shrubs, which I mulched in a fit of desperation, I threw down a pack of showy evening primrose, which is a crazy spreader but hey, if you’re gonna have weeds, at least they can be attractive native weeds.

(I also transplanted in some sundrops, on the principle that the Oenothera genus can fight it out there with my blessing.)

The garden is doing pretty well. This is the third year, and supposedly perennials take three years to be established—“First they sleep, then they creep, then they leap.” In a couple of cases, this seems to be true—the wild quinine threw out twice the leaves of last year, the Carolina jessamine finally flowered, the cabbage leaf coneflower put out a shock of leaves as big as my torso, and the chocolate snakeroot practically lunged out of the ground.

In a few others, it’s only the second year and they seem to have gone for a kzin-style scream-and-leap. I hope to god that this is not them “creeping” or else next year’s garden will be nothing but New York aster, hardy ageratum, and swamp sunflower. The swamp sunflower is seriously scaring me. The plant consisted of a few leggy stalks last year, so this year I put one of those plant support grids over top of it, thinking they’d grow through. Instead they’re dense, leafy, and about to yank the grid out of the ground and possibly smash me over the head with it.

Next up, finishing the pond!

Salvia Problem

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I have a salvia problem.

That’s salvia, not saliva. Plants in the sage family. Huge, huge genus, has something like 700 species in it, very popular in gardens. Many of them are very tough, durable, drought-tolerant plants, they all tend to be quite popular with the pollinators and while I’m sure there are some thugs in the genus, all the ones I’ve tried have been well-behaved and non-invasive in the garden. (Although I’m not all that pleased with some of the ornamental cultivars currently out there–very pretty, but can’t take our humidity, tend to melt.)

I kinda collect them.

Generally I’m really good about the native plant thing. I browse the nursery aisles with my phone in hand, googling plant origins. There are far more natives in my garden than non-natives, and immigrants have to pull their weight in the nectar department, or they get the boot. But the system breaks down when I come to the salvias.

I went to this garden center in Sanford today, called “Big Bloomers” and I got a dozen or so plants, and all of them were native…until I got to the salvias. (Okay, okay, some of the Agastaches, while native to North America, are not actually native to my chunk of it. I’ve kinda started collecting those, too, I confess.  And okay, fine, the Chipola River Coreopsis is endemic to Florida, but I’ll fudge a lot for a coreopsis that takes wet soil and part-sun.)

But their salvia collection…dear lord. I could do my entire garden in nothing but salvias. (AND DON’T THINK I HAVEN’T THOUGHT ABOUT IT!) They had whole aisles of nothing but salvias. Belize Sage. Andean Mountain Sage. Florida Sage “Volcano.” (Legitimately native to my region!) Sages from Baja, Brazil, Uruguay.  On and on, every color of the rainbow, every shape and variation of leaves, salvia after salvia. It was glorious and terrifying and I had gather my shreds of willpower and not just start shoveling them into the cart with both hands. (I got a few–the one from Florida, a hardy bog sage, a beautiful little dwarf called “Champagne Blush” and “Of the Night” which would take semi-shade. Believe me, this counted as “exercising restraint.” There were HUNDREDS. I was lucky many of them were not hardy to zone 7b, or else I’d be in trouble.)

Clearly I have to get the one side bed in the backyard done as quickly as possible. Of course, before I can really work on that, I need to finish the expansion of the vegetable bed, which is ALMOST done (and I’m sticking some of my new mountain mint varieties in there to attract pollinators to my veggies) and I should probably finish digging the pond, and I think I’m supposed to be writing a book or something, but oh god, it smells like spring out there, and what am I, made of stone?

It’s That Time

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When I was young, I used to read the garden catalogs. My mother and I went though them. It was a thing.

I still occasionally read garden catalogs, particularly when it is mid-winter and I am feelin’ blue, but I hardly ever use them now. Now I use the internet. I have ordered weird and random plants from the internet with great success–native prairie plants and chokecherry and serviceberry. Spring Garden sent me the plants I asked for, but they also sent me a bunch of other “bonus” stuff, which I put in the ground out of guilt, which is why I have Shasta daisies even though I don’t WANT Shasta daisies, and I had French lavender for a year and then it expired in the cold because you can’t grow French lavender around here. I hate that.

ANYWAY. I am experimenting with vegetables this year. My front yard has been landscaped to hell and back, and now needs time to grow, the nanoprairie gets another two years before anything happens (and if nothing happens that third year, I will terrace it, replant, and cry a lot)  so it’s time to work on the back. The back gets vegetables and some native plants to draw in the pollinators. (Fortunately I have some spare natives from the front yard that can be transplanted.)

Therefore, I have ordered vegetables.

I have limited myself to six packets, since I will pick up some tomato and broccoli and herb starts locally.  I have three cucumbers of various varieties–one a classic Parisian pickling gherkin, one a tiny Mexican cucumber that fruits in fall and tastes a bit lemony, and one rare Armenian variety called “painted serpent” which they recommend you pick before it gets eighteen inches long and which I have absolutely no earthly use for.

Kevin wanted to make pickles. Kevin will get to make Very Large Pickles.

I have also acquired artichokes, a perennial which can overwinter here in the South, Dragon Tongue beans, and a classic garden pea called “Wando” that does well in the south.

I am not too worried about the Over Produce Problem yet, because these are seeds and I have terrible luck with seeds, of course.  So I will start half of these in seed starter and we’ll see how it goes. I have a bed picked out for the climbing stuff that needs to be heavily mulched over come spring–it’s against the house, and I’m going to stick trellises up it, since that’s a fiendishly sunny spot, and I hope to provide a smidgeon of shade to the house.  I also plan to expand the current veggie bed to nearly double its current size (which isn’t all that much, since it’s wee at the moment.) We’ll see how my hugelkultur bed does–I suspect that the raspberry and serviceberry will happily grow to fill the spaces allotted them, but should either fail to thrive, I have replacements.

And now I will not buy any more seeds. Because seeds are too cheap and plentiful and have too fascinating of descriptions, and that way lies horrible danger.

Stuff In My Yard: Pineapple Sage

By | plants, Stuff In My Yard | 44 Comments

Salvia elegans, taken with iPhone

Salvia elegans

It’s fall, definitely and thoroughly fall, and the real show-stopper in the garden at the moment is the pineapple sage.

My mother grew pineapple sage, and I remember it fondly as a small potted annual herb, pleasant-smelling and vigorous, but not particularly large, and I’m not sure if it ever actually flowered.

Now I live in the South.

Pineapple sage is a shrub down here. It may or may not overwinter here in Zone 7b–luck and placement is a factor–but it hardly matters because it grows to massive proportions in a single season. The one in the picture (cultivar “Golden Delicious” which I highly recommend for the foliage color) comes up past my shoulders, is covered in flowers, and I spend most of the summer hacking it back to keep it from eating the rest of the plants.

Originally from the highlands of Mexico and, as I said, VERY vigorous, it’d be an odd plant for me to grow, but it’s actually got some really good points. It flowers very late, when the days have gotten short, and offers a last good meal to late-migrating hummingbirds and a serious nosh for Cloudless Sulphurs and other butterflies.  (I’ve seen a whole flock of the butterflies…flight? swarm? flurry? hovering over it in the last few weeks.) It’s a very low seed producer–I’ve grown multiple plants for multiple years and yanked all of one seedling in that time.  And all that pruning in summer is actually kinda useful, because I can use it as what’s known in permaculture as a “mulch crop” either dropping it on top of the soil or using it as a layer in a sheet mulch bed.  (Half the beds I’ve built are based on a layer of pineapple sage cuttings.)

Plus you can cook with it–apparently it’s a marvelous spice–use it in iced tea and fruit salad, and it’s used extensively in Mexican folk medicine and treats anxiety in mice. (I do not have any anxious mice to treat, and honestly haven’t tried cooking with it, but it’s nice to have the option.) And it’s gorgeous, of course, and a heckuva final show in a garden winding down for autumn.

In fall, I stop hacking it back and just let it go, whereupon it flowers like crazy and then, when winter hits, becomes a tangle of stems under the birdfeeder (I like to grow it under–and around–the birdfeeder) which provides cover for the juncos and sparrows, who treat it like a jungle gym.

Full sun, takes clay soil very well, handles humidity with ease, and is semi-drought tolerant once established, although it gets pretty wilty and is a bit of water-hog in a pot.  It’s propagated vegetatively–it doesn’t run or it’d be entirely too vigorous for me to plant, but you could root a cutting of the stuff on the surface of Venus, and lots of people bring it inside for the winter, where it continues to flower happily for quite a long time.  I yanked some up that was eating its neighbors and shoved it rather carelessly into the ground at the edge of the driveway, which is packed clay and gravel, and then watered it twice and forgot it was there. It survived a solid month of drought in seriously punishing soil and while it’s not nearly as pretty as the stuff under the birdfeeder, it is very much alive and growing. This stuff is like iron.

Schweinitz’s Sunflower

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taken with iPhone

This plant here is Schweinitz’s Sunflower, a federally endangered plant. I took the photo at the North Carolina Botanical Garden yesterday, where I went because I was having a bad day and roaming through the Botanical Garden makes me feel a bit better…possibly because their garden is as ragged as mine these days, so I don’t feel so bad about the state of mine.

The botanical garden here is growing Schweinitz’s Sunflower and storing seed from various populations of it. It’s extremely endangered–there are just 35 populations, all in North and South Carolina. It is, in fact, one of the plants from the vanished Piedmont Prairie, a fire-maintained oak savannah that used to cover this area before European settlement. (My extremely unimpressive prairie planting is modeled on said Piedmont prairie. At the moment it looks very dead. I’m giving it another year or two to do ANYTHING, and then I’m terracing the hillside and starting over. There WILL be a prairie planting on that site if it kills me…ahem.) The sunflower has suffered declines because people stopped letting fires burn, and started developing open areas and putting buildings on top of the sunflowers, with the end result that, like many of our prairie plants, it now lives mostly in power line clearings and old pastures.

Honestly, the sunflower’s not that distinctive. It’s tall–about eight feet–and has fairly small flowers of the Standard Yellow Daisy-Like variety, which look pretty like cup plant or rosinweed or coreopsis or swamp sunflower or some rudbeckia or coneflower varieties. The foliage is nothing much.  It’s a plant. So far as I know, it has no medicinal properties and can do nothing much to help humanity. It’s just a plant.

We are saving it for the same reason that you grab people dangling off cliffs–because it’s the right thing to do. You don’t interrogate the person hanging off the cliff as to their ability to better humanity, you don’t look at them and go “Hmm….you’re pretty average lookin’…” and let them fall. You try to haul them up, because it’s just what you do when people–or species–are dangling off cliffs.

If there were enough of them (there aren’t yet) it might be a good candidate for gardeners to try and help bring back. I’ve got a fair number of threatened species in the garden–prairie dropseed is locally endangered, Eupatorium hyssopfolium is endangered in the northern part of its range, and a friend who volunteers at the botanical garden got me a lovely little big-leaf magnolia to try and coax along. And I’m not a good gardener, merely an enthusiastic one.  Gardeners can do a lot, I suspect–not as much as not wrecking the habitat in the first place, god knows, but in a lot of cases, the milk has already been spilled and we might as well see if we can make cheese out it.

And I cannot help but think that a world where we grew a couple of threatened plants instead of another azalea or bucket of mums would be a slightly better one. Even if they just look like plants.

It looked sad!

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Pity is not a good reason to buy a plant. In fact, it’s a terrible reason. Gardening is hard enough already, and you owe it to yourself to work with hardy, healthy, well-grown specimens. I am no master gardener, and most of the success I have enjoyed derives from arming myself with sturdy plants of species that would probably grow if planted in asphalt.

Which, of course, is why I came home today with the World’s Most Tragic Redbud.

It had apparently come off the worse in a battle with a forklift, and I found it with almost all the dirt knocked off its roots, (the roots themselves a pitiably small tangle) slumped against a table of suspiciously glossy Burford holly.

I didn’t want a tree. I had come in for birdseed. Birdseed is not a tree.

Redbud is native. It’s a beautiful tree that flowers in spring. I love them dearly, and am sad that the only one in the immediate vicinity is off in the woods and hard to see. I had been thinking for awhile that it would be a nice thing to plant, but of course, I wanted a seriously tough specimen, well grown and vigorous, with roots that would dive into the soil like otters on steroids.

I looked at the dying redbud.

It looked sad.

Kevin had adopted more tragic homeless animals than one cares to contemplate, and we cannot see a stray dog or cat cross the road without slowing down and looking at each other and gritting our teeth. I brake for turtles, and I dread the day I find a living-but-injured turtle, and wind up spending huge sums at the vet to try and heal it. There was probably never any hope.

I tracked down the manager, who offered me a steep discount on the poor tree, and I lugged it home, muttering about suckers and P. T. Barnum,  sank it as deep into the ground as it would go, and soaked it down. There’s not much root there. I don’t have all that much hope, and I certainly didn’t plan to put a tree in that spot, but…well…if it lives, it’ll shade the bed that was supposed to be part-shade and has been burning a lot in our killer summer sun. And it’s a redbud. And it was really cheap.

And it looked sad.


So That’s What Millet Looks Like

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Millet photo by Dalgial, Wikimedia Commons

Doing some long overdue weeding under the birdfeeder today to clear out the Bermuda grass and the other oddities–I left the volunteer sunflower, but the tall, columnal plant with the big seedhead was starting to scare me a little. I yanked it out, noting the shape of the seedheads, and went on-line, where I discovered that it is, in fact, the adult form of millet.

Which makes sense, because it’s under the birdfeeder where the volunteers grow.

A great plant, millet, a useful grain, and clearly easy to grow, as all the labor was provided by mourning doves. Not, however, appropriate for that section of my garden. I have plans to expand vegetable production, but growing grains is a level of complexity I’m content to leave to the agricultural-industrial complex, and the occasional hopeful sampling of bread at the farmer’s market. (So far it has all had the texture and consistency of paving brick, but I hold out hope!)

Although I suspect the birds would like the millet, if I let it go somewhere else…