Monday, July 21, 2014

A little bit of closure

So much has happened since I last got around to write a post that its hard to know where to start.  Anyone who has been following this blog would of already known of my big move to distant lands, but before I get down to writing about that I feel I need some closure.  So for this post, I thought a little tour of my old garden would be appropriate.

The great divide - linking two unique spaces 
Someone once told me that garden bloggers should be willing to to give virtual tours of their own gardens. After all, we all claim to be masters of our art, but what better way to be judged on that claim then to show off your garden.
One of my favorite corners

However, creating your garden is a personal adventure. Some will claim that gardening is about creating a sanctuary to escape from society, others might go as far as to display their control over nature. Although I would agree it was my escape, my garden was a living laboratory, a place where I could experiment and push the envelope with the new and unusual. Because of this, at the start of every growing season I came to the realization that pushing the envelope equaled dead plants. This years winter was particularly cruel.

Brown lifeless sticks stood where years before unusual plants once grew. My cherished Eucalyptus neglecta came through the winter stone cold dead, where in any other winter it would only show burn around the edges of its evergreen foliage. My experiments in zone denial had proven that mother nature was really in control as she threw a curveball at my garden.

A circular area where the garden embraced you.

Fatsia forever!
However, I was surprised to see some of my 'so-called tender' plants struggle off the winter and push out hard in defiance.  My first success was a Fatsia japonica bursting forth from its roots.  Monrovia nurseries had listed this as a Zone 8 plant, but it was proving itself more adaptable than that.  Even my experiments in hardy palms seemed lost until I noticed the green spear erupting from the Sabal minor I had planted late last year.  Even Dan Hinkley's 'Golden Crane' hydrangea that had been pitifully struggling ever since I planted it some years back started throwing shoots out! I'm wondering if now I'm gone its become the star of the garden just to taunt me after all these years of nursing it along!
There's always hope!

Gardeners are never done creating gardens.  Even for myself, knowing that I would be selling the property I still wanted to change the design and add more plants.  We had sold our children's playset under the advice of our realtor and it opened up a wonderful opportunity to plant up a corner of the garden.  I couldn't resist moving a Heptacodium miconiodes, or Seven Son Flower tree that I planted last year into this newly found space.  Once in, it anchored some of the other planting I had done perfectly like a hand inside a glove.   I had to be restrained not to run out and buy a car load of other plants to add to this new section.

The view from the deck - minus a Ecalyptus!
I still had spots around the garden, that even after years of playing with still didn't work in my minds eye.  I was always frustrated with one border that would bake dry as concrete during the summer but be constantly flooded over the winter.  I had wanted to go with a more zeroscaped approach to reduce the need of water during the summer month and planted many plants that would favor this.  However, the winter wet always reduced the plants to rotten piles of mush.  Even butterfly bushes, the most robust weed ever released on our gardens would be no match to these conditions.  Some plants would show there disdain by uprooting and appearing somewhere else around the garden.  Case in point is the Blackberry lily, Belamcanda, that I've previously written about.  It would seed itself to more favorable conditions and prosper.  Should you try and return it to its intended spot it would flop down in disgust.

The hopeless wet border
I had learnt a lot working away in this garden but my time had come to close the gate.  I did leave part of my soul there but in reality it had one of its own as it personality changed year after year.  I hope the new owners embrace it as much as I did.  Even if they don't I can accept it as a garden is a reflection of your personality.  It wouldn't be right to expect them to continue with my dream as it was mine to start with.  Now its time for them to put their mark on what is such a personable space.  For me, I have new dirt to dig that I call now call my home!

My cast out section, on the other side of the fence became an oasis of calm

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Take the Red Pill

I have to admit, Alice in Wonderland isn't one of my favorite movies but the quote that starts this post is.  I pulled the metaphor from another more manly film, The Matrix, where the lead character is faced with a similar decision of seeing how far the rabbit hole really goes. Its more science fiction with awesome special effects than fairy tale, plus a little better to admit watching than Alice!

So what does Red Pills and Rabbit holes have to do with a post on a gardening blog?  Well, simply put I was recently faced with a similar life changing decision, and my rabbit hole took me 1736 miles from home on a new adventure.

Three weeks ago I excepted an opportunity of a lifetime to become a horticultural manager on an estate in the Caribbean and handed in my notice at work.  Though it sounds like the transition was quick, it had been in the making since mid February!  But all good things comes to those that wait and now I'm on the island the dream has become a reality.

Of course moving and living in paradise doesn't come without a cost.  Our house of six years is on the market, which includes a garden I spent many hours painstakingly planning, planting and adjusting to make it perfect.  Not to mention all the things we have upgraded on the inside to make it ours.  All are belongings have been or are in the process of being sold off with a few being packed for shipping.  It really is amazing how much you can accumulate over 14 years of living in a country.

Of course we leave behind good friends.  I was taken back just how much of an impact our decision to move had on those that I have developed a friendship with though my work.  Although everyone was happy for our news it became apparent just how much I meant to my hardcore group of gardening customers as well as the people I worked with.  Hopefully this blog will fill a void and make it seem that I never left.

My view at sunset
In some ways I feel the islands have called me back after 14 years absence.  My previous experiences had taken me to Tortola, British Virgin Islands to work in a botanic garden for two years. I even interviewed for a job on Nevis at there botanic garden before leaving the islands for mainland America.  To be able to return to the island culture is an opportunity to good to pass up.

Hopefully, those of you who seeked out my blog out for horticultural inspiration in a less than tropical situation will still keep coming back to see what gardening is like on an island.  But, as I reinvent myself on a new career path it only seems natural to reinvent the blog.  So from this point forward, I present the new 'British Gardener - The Caribbean Memoirs', or should it be 'Life amongst the Coconuts', I don't know now.

Well better get back to liming and I don't mean being British!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Damn good plants - Illicium floridanum, Purple Anise

We tend to forget what a wealth of plants North America has to offer.  During the early days of exploring, many collectors came to North America in search of new plants to feed Europe's horticultural appetite.  Before the Asian continent was opened for European trade, it was considered the height of fashion (as well as a show of wealth) to have gardens rich in North American floral exotic's.

illicum floridanum
In America, gardening with native plants seems to go through waves of popularity.  Many native prairie styled perennials like Coneflowers and Black Eyed Susans have enjoyed a renaissance over the last decade.  Lots of new cultivars have entered the maketplace with varying heights and colors, increasing their popularity for use in our gardens.  However, native woody shrubs have been lagged behind with the same range of choice.  One shrub though that is stepping out of the shadows is our own native Anise, or Illicium floridanum.  

I first encountered this shrub when a customer presented me with a photo of an evergreen shrub, much like a Rhododendron, but with deep crimson star-like blooms.  Some how we managed to name this plant as a Illicium but there it remained as just a photo for a few years.  More recently I've began to noticed more mainstream nurseries listing it and every year newer varieties seems to be dribbling out from production. My own garden boasts a couple of varieties with room still to add one or more as the selection of choice continues to grow.  No longer is it just found as a typed listing in a mail-order plant catalog.

Rare white flowered form
Listed as a threatened species, Purple Anise is native of northern Florida and Georgia's moist woodlands, spreading into coastal plain areas of Louisiana.  Given its southern location, I have found it grows quite well in my colder zone 7, Northern Virginia garden.  This evergreen shrub reaches heights of 6-10 ft tall in an upright, but rounded habit.  The foliage is elliptical, smooth and glossy, which when bruised will emit an spicy anise-like aroma. The Latin word 'illicium' means allurement, referring to the aromatic properties of this plant. Although a close cousin to the Asian Star Anise (Illicum verum), don't be fooled into thinking  of consuming it as its highly toxic.  Nodding dark red flowers appear from April into May and emit a fishy fragrance when up close, but tend to be overshadowed by its glossy foliage.  Plants do best in areas where they don't receive the hot afternoon sun and needs organically rich, moist but not excessively wet soil.

So given the fact that the flowers are fishy and the foliage is toxic, why grow Illicum?  Easy, its one of a few native evergreen shrubs for shade that deer detest and secondly, there's a lot of different varieties now to choose from.

Below is a list of some of the varieties that have passed through the garden center at different points.

'Florida Sunshine'
'Florida Sunshine' - A chance discovery by Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery, came across some unusual seedlings grown by Florida plantsman, Charles Webb.  After several years of evaluation, one was selected for its bright chartreuse yellow foliage and brilliant red young stems.  My own plant is still to young to flower but not much is said in references online about it.  One article did comment that the bloom color is near white and doesn't show against the foliage very well.  It can suffer with leaf burn if exposed to too much winter sun and is best located in partial sun to shade. Smaller in height at maturity than the straight species, this shrub will act like a beacon in a shadier corner.

Haley's Comet
'Haley's Comet' - Awarded the Pennsylvania Horticultural Societies 2009 Gold medal, 'Haley's Comet' is an all round improved variant over the species.  Bigger and better blooms appear in large numbers over an extended period.  It has shown better cold tolerance and faster growth than others and is mentioned to be tolerant of dry shade once it gets established.

'Pink Frost'
'Pink Frost' - This was discovered in 2003 as a sport or branch mutation growing from another variety of Illicum called 'Shady Lady'.  Upon evaluation, 'Pink Frost' showed dramatic improvements in form over its parent plant.  A well branched habit with outward held creamy margin leaves.  During colder temperatures or when new growth appears in spring, the creamy margins are replaced with a pink tint, leading to its name.  Flowers are a deep maroon-red that really pow against the foliage.  I also find the aroma produced from bruising the leaves to be much sweeter when compared to others.

'Shady Lady'
'Shady Lady' - This 1989 discovery had been in underground circulation until recent popularity in the group forced it into the spotlight.  Discovered by Dodd & Dodd Native Nurseries of Alabama, this variety has a brighter creamy white splashing of color across its green to blue-green foliage.  The foliage also has a crinkle to it that adds some textural qualities.  Flowers are a soft peachy-pink but are hard to distinguish against the riot of foliage color.

A worthwhile cousin to mention, although not as flashy, is the Yellow, Star or Ocala Anise Tree, Illicum parviflorum.  A native to Florida's central moist woodlands and swamps, this evergreen shrub or small tree does equally well in Virginian gardens too.  It is slightly bigger than the Purple Anise at 10-15' tall and 6-10' wide and can colonize through root suckers.  The olive green foliage emits the same fragrance as all Anise shrubs and is left alone by browsing animals.  Yellowy- green flowers appear in late may but for the most part go unnoticed.  Mostly for these reasons it lends itself well to hedging as it lacks the drama and refinement that the Purple Anise has and responds well to shearing and training.  Best growing in moist sites in light shade but can tolerate more sun as long as they are provided with uniformed moisture.

These variations may not keep the species true to form but it does improve its marketability.  Through the work of many nursery people, this obscure and little known shrub is beginning its march to becoming a potential mainstay of domestic landscapes.  Any time you can find a plant that isn't favored by deer it becomes worthy of attention, and this plant deserves all the respect in the world.  March on! 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Bringing Nature Home

One of my children's most watched films is 'The Lorax', based on the book of the same name by the famous author, Dr. Seuss.  It is a fable chronicling the plight of the environment as the 'Oncer-ler', a character representing corporate greed, strips the land of natural resources for production of a 'Thneed'.

It highlights the dangers of unsustainable growth as the last 'Truffula' tree (the Once-ler's major raw material), is cut down forcing the Once'lers factory to close. In the mean time, all the wildlife that coexisted with the Truffula trees becomes displaced as their environment is filled with toxic pollution.

This past weekend, I jumped at the chance of taking my daughter to meet a real life Lorax, who like Dr Seuss was 'giving voice to the trees for they have no tongue'.   Doug Tallamy, who I featured in a post entitled America's Top Gardeners is a Professor of  Entomology and Wildlife Ecology for the University of Delaware. He was in town to talk about award winning book, 'Bringing Nature Home', and to address the plight of our own environment. What I discovered during the presentation was a revelation, that my own gardening philosophy was causing more harm than good.

Bluebird with caterpiller - kansasphoto
Tallamy discussed that 96% of bird life relied heavily on insects, mostly caterpillars, to feed their young. These protein rich morsels contains pound for pound more protein of beef that allows chicks to develop quickly. However, this food supply has been declining, adversely effecting everything within the food-web. So frightening is the rate of decline that since 1966 we've seen a drop of 1% per year of migratory birds who over winter in Central and South America. That is a 50% reduction in 50 years! Habitat loss is one area of concern but failing food-webs are the other.

As we all know, most insects feed on the foliage of plants. Plants are able to capture the energy of the sun, while insects are very good at converting this plant tissue into other types of energy, in the form of themselves. But, plants are smart. Many plants produce toxins to prevent being striped of foliage, which would lead to their demise. As a result, selected insects have co-evolved with selected plants to become exclusive consumers, resistant to the toxin that would otherwise kill them. The down side to this specialism is that when food plants become endangered, then the insect can't adapted to new sources and declines in numbers. This limiting factor then effects the next level up that relies on the insect for food, triggering a collapse of the  food-web.

Monarch Caterpiller - mean and pinchy
One example Tallamy used was the demise of the Monarch butterfly. The Monarch caterpillar only feeds from the foliage of milkweeds, Asclepias sp. For a long time, both milkweeds and monarch could be found in mass numbers among crops grown for agriculture. However with hybridizing, many of our crops have been bred to resist damage from herbicide spraying, funneling more nutrients to the intended crops but eliminating the population of milkweeds that would have grown wild in our fields.  96.4% of migrating Monarchs have gone, leaving only 3.6% of what that number was. Apart from Monarchs, 11 other butterfly species are known to reproduce on Milkweeds.

The last stand of the Monarchs - Henry McLin

New sanctuaries have to be found if change is going to occur and Tallamy's answer is our gardens. Plants are the lifeblood of earth but our gardens have always been designed as status symbols. In America, nearly 45 million square acres (3 times more than irrigated corn crops) of lawns are grown, fed and watered for purely aesthetic reasoning. However, lawns don't filter water, don't provide clean air and don't support wildlife. We also fill are gardens with exotic, non native plants that are impervious to insect damage or spray harmful chemicals to ward off attacks.  In theory are gardens have becoming food deserts, unable to support live. Tallamy's suggestion was to take some of this area and convert it back.

"If half of American lawns were replaced with native plants, we would create the equivalent of a 20 million acre national park – nine times bigger than Yellowstone, or 100 times bigger than Shenandoah National Park."

Doug Tallamy

One example Tallamy used was of a courtyard garden (15ft x 15ft) found growing at the Department of Agriculture in Delaware. The garden contained just four plants of milkweeds but were found to be supporting over 150 monarch caterpillars. With such a small area set aside for native plants, it had become an island where a threaten population could find a haven.

'Native plants support native insects' was Tallamy's clear message. If you want birds you have to have a food source for them. In turn, to provide a food source for birds you need plants that are hosts to insects. The dilemma for a gardener is to except that your prized plant will at some point be nibbled on but the payoff is greater than the worth. An oak can support up to 550 different species of butterflies and moths which in turn provides food for birds, while an invasive Norway Maple is food for none.

I've learnt that by filling my garden with exotic, non-native plants that insect don't feed on, I have produced an environment of little value with green statues everywhere. This coming year I will be changing some of my planting to include more wildlife friendly, native plants. It would be a sad day if a stroll in the garden didn't include the song of a bird or the fluttering colors of butterfly wings, Unless.....

“But now," says the Once-ler, "now that you're here, the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear. UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.” 

― Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

Check out Doug Tallamy website by clicking here

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Becoming a Mulchologist!

Maybe just 2 more bags?
If ever such a professional title as a mulchologist existed, then last year I came pretty close to earning that accolade.  I hadn't given too much thought to the stuff until I was faced with some peculiar questions about are wood based mulches.  In fact, the more I dug into the world of shredded or chipped mulch the more I realized that it might be more foe than friend.

My training began early in 2013 as many landscapers and homeowners were breaking out of snow-mode and venturing back into the garden.  There's nothing better than cleaning up the remnants of last years fallen leaves or cutting back the odd ornamental grass to get us into the gardening mood again.  What better time to lay down that fresh carpet of mulch before all those perennials break through the ground.  Although not my favorite of mulch coverings, color dyed mulch has become very popular.  Black, brown or martian red, we sell enough scoops to probably pave the Washington DC Beltway (slight exaggeration).

The Lava flow
However, little did I know, you have to make sure that you have at least one dry day after applying the stuff or you run the risk of rain washing off the color.  So great is the demand for this colorful carpet, it is processed without time to properly cure.  Nothing is worse than waking up the following day after spreading it to discover your lava field of red mulch looks more like fresh milled chips spat out from an arborist's tree shredder.

For suppliers of mulch, one thing they have to watch out for is souring.  The large piles of wood mulch stored for long periods over the winter, or bagged mulch that remains too wet can undergo anaerobic fermentation.  This process converts organic matter into sulfides, acetic acid, ethanol and methanol, basically it becomes wood alcohol.  If not properly processed, this 'Moonshine mulch' releases gases that are toxic to plants, bleaching or scorching the foliage of surrounding plants and even running off into your lawn.  For some plants this can be detrimental, but woody plants will regrow any lost foliage once the hangover has pasted.  A quick sniff of the mulch, checking for an alcohol-like, vinegar or rotten eggs odor should alert to a potential problem before you spread it out.

We all know the virtues of mulching to control weeds and reduce moisture loss but it can be over done.  Excessive mulch will suffocate the soil and provide cover of rodents like my personal nemesis, the veracious vole, who likes nothing better than to chew off the roots of my plants undetected.  Long have we been told to not mound up mulch around trees, creating a volcano but it is still seen around our neighborhoods.

Lesser known but equally as damaging, is constantly re-applying mulch in annual layers.  Many of us don't realize the need to break up and aerate the crust that mulch can form throughout the year.  When shredded wood mulch is applied to thick and allowed to dry out, it becomes a breeding ground for certain kinds of water-repelling fungus.  This Fungus produces a mycelium mat, similar to roots of a plant, that becomes so dense it repels water.  The technical term is 'Hydrophobic', but this effect prevents moisture penetrating down to the soil, starving the roots of water.

The opposite of a Mulch Volcano - The 3ft deep, compact Crater

Now that's just not right!
Many microorganism live in and around mulch.  Some are beneficial to our gardens like mycorrhizal fungi. Others slowly break down and mineralize the mulch material, releasing nutrients that benefit the surrounding plants. However, some microorganisms can become a nuisance and become detrimental in our gardens. Who hasn't suffered from Tar spots on your siding or covering your car, fired from artillery fungus. And, what about those phallic toadstools from stink horns, aptly named for the stench they give off too. Nothing beats the slime molds. Commonly referred to as Dog Vomit Fungus as it looks just like its named! Wood based mulch is an ideal media for fungus establishment and if measures aren't taken to remove these annoying organisms, then the chances are great that they will re-inoculate fresh mulch after its applied.

These problems are just a glimpse into a bigger a debate about wood mulches dirty little secret.  I have been scarred by Artillery fungus's Tar Spot bombs and lost many plants from tunneling voles.  Gone is the desire to spread yet another 10+ yards of shredded wood mulch each and every year.  I confess, I'm cheap, but is there a better alternative?  Well according to Ohio State University Associate Professor of Agricultural Research and Development, Dr Dan Herms, the answer is compost!

In a study comparing ground or shredded wood mulch and composted yard waste it was found that the low Carbon to Nitrogen ratio of compost produced better plant growth and increased productivity.  The finding are too long to cover in this post, but isn't compost what we used to do before it became popular to buy shredded mulch?  It was only since the 70's that sawmills began removing the bark from logs in an effort to extend a saw blades lifespan.  Within a few years of that, nurserymen and landscapers were buying up all the waste from mills as an easy way to dress up our gardens.  Are we now beginning to discover some of the negative effects from this product.

So true Mr 'Most interesting man in the the World'
While I'd agree mulch is more aesthetically pleasing to look at, like icing on the cake, I would welcome something that improves the well being of my garden.  Gone for me are the days of bagging up grass clippings and fallen leaves for the trash truck.  For the past year I have been spreading my garden waste directly onto the beds and allowing those microbes to go to town on it.  Although the conventional wisdom tells me to process this material first, I've seen no negative effects on my plants.

One unexpected benefit I've recently seen is that neighborhood cats have been able to easily hunt down the voles.  It seems that these supreme hunters can seek out and attack subterranean voles better in compost than compacted mulch.  This is enough reason for me to continue using compost to mulch with but I suspect I will need to find more material to feed my gardens needs.  I'll have to keep an eye open for more curb side garden waste to use and recycle.  Someones trash will become my treasure!

Read more here, but don't forget to come back!