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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Thrifty Gardening Tips Part 5: Make Compost

Here is Part 5 of The Home Garden's series of tips on how to garden on a budget.

One of the best fertilizers has to be compost. It's cheap, easy to create, and makes plants grow like crazy. With compost you can replace most of your fertilizer use! Now why don't more people do it? Maybe because they believe composting is difficult to accomplish, or maybe it sounds complicated, or maybe they just never thought about it. Whatever the reason is composting is a very good way to feed your plants and it keeps green waste from ending up in landfills.

What is compost? Simply put it is the leftovers of organic materials after beneficial bacterias, worms, fungi, and other organisms have had their fill. Those leftovers have nutrients that plants need to grow strong and healthy like nitrogen and carbon.

What can you compost? A whole lot of stuff! Kitchen scraps, egg shells, animal manure (not from dogs and cats), leaves and grass clippings, and virtually anything that was at one time a plant! (Avoid black walnut leaves since they a chemical they emit can actually inhibit plant growth.)

How do you use compost? You can supplement or make potting mixes with compost, spread it over new and existing garden beds, and even make a tea for your plants. To make the tea just put a couple spadefuls of compost in a bucket of water and let it steep overnight. Then either pour it onto the plants you want to treat or strain it and put it into a spray bottle to treat the foliage.

With compost it's a good idea to have a designated spot in your yard where you can let it cook over time. You can do this in all sorts of ways.

Here are a few ideas for compost bins:

  1. You can create a homemade bin using wooden stakes and chicken wire. Just set the corner stakes in the ground and wrap the wire around the bin and you're done!
  2. You can set up a bin using old wooden palettes. Just prop three palettes up on their ends and attach the corners together. Then get a brace board for the front and you're bin is about ready. You may want to put a removable chicken wire cover on the front for easy compost access!
  3. You can use cinder block or retaining wall stones to create a very solid bin in nearly any form that you wish. Just be sure the bottom layer is solid or the top will become unstable.
  4. You can even (if you want to spend money!) buy a fancy rotating bin from garden suppliers like Gardener's Supply Company! The advantage of turning your compost regularly is an increased air supply for the bacteria that is doing the hard work.
  5. The cheapest and easiest method (although also the most untidy!) is just to make a dump pile! Just find an area of your yard that you can tolerate a pile of compostable materials and start dumping.

You hear a lot about the proper way to build a compost pile, which if done properly will decompose very quickly, but even without the proper mix of brown and green materials it will decompose if given enough time.

Here are a couple of general guidelines that may help speed along you're compost if you are so inclined!

  1. Keep it moist but not soggy.
  2. The smaller the pieces you put in the faster they will decompose.
  3. Balance the ingredients. A good mix of green and brown materials will optimize the decay.
  4. Make sure it has enough heat. If doesn't feel warmer than the air around you add some more green materials (nitrogen).
  5. Turn the compost every now and then to increase air circulation.

For some excellent information on everything you need to know about compost go to Compostguide.com!

Here's quick look at some composters available on the market (from Gardener's Supply).

For more tips on how to garden on a budget visit these other Thrifty Gardening Tips posts!

Thrifty Gardening Tips Part 1: Buying and Saving Discount Discount Plants
Thrifty Gardening Tips Part 1 Follow Up: Buying and Saving Discount Plants
Thrifty Gardening Tips Part 2: The Generosity of Gardeners
Thrifty Gardening Tips Part 3: Save Gas, Only Mow Where You Go
Thrifty Gardening Tips Part 4: Think Small Plants

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

More Plants Through Propagation! (Variegated Hydrangeas, and Perennials)

Even though the summer is upon us it's still a good time to propagate plants. The key is to keep cuttings moist and at a steady temperature until roots have formed. Then they can be easily acclimated to outdoor temperatures. I do all of my cuttings inside our house on the windowsills or under a grow light to keep the temperatures steady. In the spring I've used my garage but the temperature is too hot for the cuttings to make it at this time of year.

Over the past two days I've potted up 24 new plants. To the right you can see the catmint (Nepeta faassinii 'Walker's Low'). These five rooted very easily and I potted them into 4 inch pots. I'll pinch the top growth on them for a little while to encourage a bushy habit and before too long there will be some new perennials ready to plant.

A few weeks ago I mentioned taking some cuttings of a lacecap variegated hydrangea. I took four cuttings and managed to get all four rooted! I'll be cautious before planting these in the yard since the bunnies ate the hydrangea I propagated last year. I want the root systems of each hydrangea to be fully self-sustaining so that any loss of leaves could easily be recovered. This makes 6 hydrangeas I've rooted this summer.

The new growth is a good indication that a cutting has rooted.

I also potted up 12 chrysanthemums of various kinds. I know that six of them are purple but I'm not sure what the colors others are. Since they came from our yard they could be orange, yellow, or red. I'll just have to wait and see but I suspect orange. That's a fun part of gardening, the surprises!

Here's another of my favorite perennials that I can't resist rooting, 'Purple Homestead' Verbena! I wrote about this colorful ground cover perennial a couple weeks ago. The one in the picture below was a cutting from last summer. It is thriving in our front porch garden so well that I will need to move a daylily that is being covered by the verbena's foliage.

Here are the three cuttings with a little bit of new growth on top. It's almost as if they are waving their hands in the air while saying "pick me, pick me I'm ready for dirt!"

Ready for dirt they are! Here are the roots of one of the three verbenas.

Now they are all potted up and ready to go! Now where are they going?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Oh Deer!

I thought the deer were gone but I was wrong. After a house was built behind the woods that skirts the edge of our property I thought the deer had left but when I returned home last weekend from my trip I discovered that the deer made a return.

While they could easily make it into my vegetable garden they haven't yet. Maybe it's not worth jumping the fence to get my towering tomatoes, but most likely they just haven't found the garden yet. They did find, and dine on, a little red maple I planted in the back of our property. It should recover from its leaf stripping as long as the deer don't return for a second course. I put together a little present for the deer should they return. The crushed garlic and rosemary in an old sock tied to the little maple might do the trick, but then again maybe the deer will just appreciate the extra seasoning. Let's hope not!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Birdbath Garden Progress

Back in June was the last time I posted about my birdbath garden. I thought I'd take a moment to go way back to the beginning of the garden and show you where it came from and where it might be going.

The picture on the left was taken just after I completed the birdbath and installed the first few plants. Irises, coneflowers, a butterfly bush and chrysanthemums became the first residents of the birdbath garden (for the layout see here).

Since then many more plants have been added. The coreopsis that I gathered as seed and planted last fall began blooming in late spring along with the coneflowers. I added two clumps of Zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus'), a purple leaf plum tree, a river birch and several 'Caradonna' Salvia nemorosa plants that I found on the discount racks.

The next picture was taken at the beginning of June. The coreopsis plants were still in bloom along with the salvias.

This month I acquired some stone for the border of the garden from my natural stone supplier (my in-laws). Most of the stones are limestone from the outcroppings found in many areas of Middle Tennessee but a few of the smaller ones are sandstone which is also fairly common.

Here is what it looks like now. The stones add a finishing touch to the garden and help keep the mulch contained. I used pine bark mulch since I like the look of a dark and loamy mulch and it's fairly cost effective! I put a flat stone toward the middle of the bed as a stepping stone for my convenience. That way when I need to prune or deadhead the butterfly bush or the ornamental grasses I can use the stepping stone and I don't have to step on the mulch. It should help me avoid some soil compaction.

After my return home last weekend I needed to freshen up the birdbath garden some. Many of the flowers had gone to seed and looked kind of disheveled.

This is the garden just after my return home. The coneflower petals were ragged and needed deadheaded to hopefully get a second flower display this fall.

The cones of the coneflowers were in good shape but for some reason the petals took a downturn. They probably needed more watering.

The butterfly bush has been blooming prolifically all summer. Not bad for a $5 plant! I trimmed up the deadheads on it and should get more and more blooms.

I'm very happy with this clump of Zebra grass, it's a variegated form of Miscanthus sinensis. This one was a discount plant that I divided last fall into four clumps. Three of the clumps came back and are doing well while one faded away. Three out of four ain't bad!

Somehow I ended up planting a salvia and a mum too close together. They are so close that their foliage and flowers are intermingled. This fall the purple flower stalks will stand out against the red flower heads on the mums. I'd better think about transplanting at some point!

I deadheaded the coreopsis but I didn't throw out the seed. I saved them and put them in a small tray to dry out. Pretty soon I'll plant them in pots or scatter them to the ground somewhere in the yard to create some stunning flower color in the late spring and summer. Coreopsis is very drought tolerant so if you are looking for something that does well in our Middle Tennessee area give some of the many kinds of coreopsis a look!

Thanks for visiting the birdbath garden, here's one last look at our rustic birdbath!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Butterflies and Other Winged Wonders in the Garden

One of the greatest pleasures of the garden is being able to see wildlife. While there are many kinds of wildlife from birds to bunnies and squirrels to deer that are regulars around us, the most common form of wildlife in our garden are the butterflies. Butterflies belong to the Lepidoptera order of insects and are drawn all the nectar in the flowers that we as gardeners plant. It's a good bet that if you have flowers blooming then you have butterflies about! Here's a look at a few that have been in our garden lately.

Tiger Swallowtail - Papilio glaucus

The Tiger swallowtail is one of my favorite butterflies because of his interesting stripes. This one is enjoy our butterfly bush in the Birdbath garden. Even though I call it a birdbath garden I could probably call it a butterfly garden as well. All the flowering plants in it are very good butterfly attractors: Butterfly bush, coreopsis, echinacea (coneflower), and Salvia nemorosa (see the Birdbath garden layout).

The Black swallowtail - Papilio polyxenes

The Black swallowtail butterflies are everywhere in our garden. They seem to enjoy feeding off the 'Homestead purple' verbena the most but frequently venture over to partake of our asters and butterfly bushes.

Bumblebee Moth or Snowberry Clearwing Moth - Hemaris diffinis

This little bumblebee look-a-like and his cohorts are even more common than the Black swallowtails in our garden. At first glance when the Clearwings are flying around you might mistake them for bumblebees but after you listen to them you will notice that they don't have the same buzz. Unfortunately they fly around as fast as the bumblebees do which makes photographing them difficult. Gail over at Clay and Limestone talked about them last week and even posted a video of one sipping some nectar at a monarda!

Can't you just hear this one saying "Mmmmm verbena!"

Is this a Great Spangled Frittilary? I'm no butterfly expert but I think that's who it is. This little butterfly is all over our 'Oranges and Lemons ' gaillardia. What do you think?

The dragonflies have been quite common this year. They are good to have around the garden since they like to eat mosquitoes and gnats. Feast away Mr. Dragonfly!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Thrifty Gardening Tips: Think Small Plants

Here is Part 4 in The Home Garden's series of posts about how to garden on a budget.

Often when people go to the plant nursery they look around and see what they can get for that immediate impact in their landscape. They see larger more established plants and can easily see how they will fit in their garden. If these same people just stop and look around they might find a smaller and cheaper alternative! If you think smaller plants you will not only save money but sometimes you will end up with just as good of a plant just as fast.

Plants at nurseries come in all sizes from tiny little 2 inch pots to large gallon pots capable of holding fairly large trees. In general the larger a plant is the more mature and expensive it is. Smaller plants have a great advantage over the larger ones: the root systems are smaller. Why are smaller roots an advantage? The smaller root system will grow faster than a more established root system in new soil since it is better able to adapt to the ground conditions of your garden. This effect is easily illustrated with trees. When you plant two trees of the same kind in the same conditions, with the only difference being their size, the smaller one will eventually catch up to the larger one. It's all because of the roots!

Fast growing trees are another pitfall people purchasing plants may possibly encounter (how's that for alliteration!) Take a crape myrtle for example. They are extremely fast growing trees/shrubs that can in one season grow 4-6 feet depending on the variety. When you have a plant that grows that fast why buy the one that is twice as large? You won't be able to tell the difference in one year and you might save 20 bucks!

Sometimes it pays to be patient. This past Saturday I went bargain hunting at one of our local nurseries and found a plant I've been wanting to add to our garden, Caryopteris x clandonensis or blue mist shrub. My 4 new Caryopteris 'Longwood Blue's will grow into 3-4 foot shrubs with blue blossoms that will attract butterflies and hummingbirds. These purchases were young plants, not discount plants, that were in 4 inch pots. I only payed $1.99 for each of them. Next year these four perennial shrubs will be thick with foliage and blooms and I'll have saved a bundle.

You really can save money when you buy smaller plants as long as you can wait for good things to come!

Take a Look Back at some of the previous Thrifty Gardening Tips!

Thrifty Gardening Tips Part 1: Buying and Saving Discount Discount Plants
Thrifty Gardening Tips Part 1 Follow Up: Buying and Saving Discount Plants
Thrifty Gardening Tips Part 2: The Generosity of Gardeners
Thrifty Gardening Tips Part 3: Save Gas, Only Mow Where You Go

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Another Cool Perennial: Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)

I've talked about Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) before (with propagating) but good things are always worth a second look! Our Russian sage is in full bloom in our front garden and should continue to burst forth with a bounty of purple blooms throughout the summer. These powerful perennials are drought tolerant and have been extremely pest free. There are two varieties in our Middle Tennessee garden one called 'Longin' and another called 'Little Spire' . The 'Longin' Russian sage has performed better than the 'Little Spire' for in our garden. The 'Little Spire' seems to need more watering than the 'Longin' but despite the need for a little more water either variety performs great our Tennessee garden. 'Longin' Russian sage will reach up to 48 inches in height and needs some space to grow while 'Little Spire' is a bit more tame at a height of 36 inches.

Here is what makes Russian Sage a great perennial in the garden.

Russian Sage is Tough

The Russian sage in our garden easily withstood the 100 degree drought temperatures of last summer and each plant promptly came back for spring after wintertime temperatures. We generally have mild winters here in Tennessee but temperatures did drop below 30 on a nightly basis. (Update 3/9/2011 The past two winters have had temperatures that have dipped into the single digits and the Russian sage so far hasn't had any trouble coming back.)

Russian sage has cool foliage

This perennial has silvery-green leaves with a gently serrated edge. The cool stuff doesn't end there! If you rub the leaves between your fingers they emanate a strong yet fantastic smell. That pungent sage-like smell makes them a good deer resistant perennial. I have deer issues in many areas of my garden but Russian sage has never been nibbled on by deer or rabbits. I would consider them to be one of the most deer resistant perennials available. Russian sage isn't used for cooking but its smell might work in a dried floral arrangement or in a potpourri mixture.

Russian sage has a nice form

Russian sage reaches upward in an elegant and almost wispy form. Each branch stretches outward from the center of the plant and generally heads toward the sky. Our plants are somewhere around two and a half feet tall and haven't finished growing yet. Eventually I hope to have more Russian sage to put together in a mass planting with it as the center planting somewhere in our backyard. To keep it in good form prune Russian sage in the late winter or early spring back to 8-10 inches before new growth starts to grow.

Russian sage has abundant flowers

Each branch eventually ends in blooms. Not a bad way to end a branch when you consider how many branches it has and how many blooms you will get! The blooms of both varieties of Russian sage in my garden have the same color. Even though there may be subtle differences, all Russian sages have light, lavender colored blooms. The flowers also attract all kinds of pollinators, especially butterflies.

Russian sage flowers in August of 2009

Russian sage is Easy to Propagate from Cuttings!

Surely you didn't think I'd forget to mention that! I wrote a post back in May about propagating Russian sage so I won't go over the process again here, but feel free to look back at that post. When you take cuttings in the spring, each cutting will cause the plant to sprout two new branches which will double the summer blooms.

Edit: Russian sage can also be propagated through hardwood cuttings taken in fall or winter.

Russian Sage is Not In Everyone's Garden

Russian sage hasn't become a staple perennial in everyone's gardens even though it is worthy enough to be. I like its uniqueness and that's important in my garden!