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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Hostas on the March

Spring time is always interesting for hostas. They emerge from the soil with tight leaf buds designed to drill their way up to the surface and finally open up to become the foliage plants we all know and love.

Our hostas are springing up all over our corner shade garden. Along with the heucheras, heucherellas, oak leaf hydrangea, and Soloman's seal they make this little corner into a garden based on foliage rather than flowers, but that's not to say that hostas don't have interesting flowers. I like to let the hostas run their own course and only cut down the flower stalks after they have formed seed. Growing hostas from seed is something of an experiment that I am still working to accomplish!

Hosta 'Antioch'
Last year I added a couple hostas from the shelves of the discount racks to our deck garden. It gets morning sun and afternoon shade because of the deck which is decent for hostas. Ideally they would receive dappled sun/mostly shade all day long, but like most gardeners I deal with what I have and try to improve upon it gradually (when time and funds permit!). Hopefully soon this bed will have the shelter of a river birch to create privacy on our deck and provide the right kind of shade for the hostas.

Leaf shapes vary quite a bit depending on the variety. These 'Patriot' hostas have a very common hosta leaf shape but are attractive because of their variegation.
Hosta 'Patriot'

Hosta 'Ginkgo Craig'
One of my favorite hostas is the 'Ginkgo Craig' which sports a very narrow leaf shape and has green and white variegated leaves. The white variegation appears around the edges. At some point I'll collect one of the larger blue leaved varieties to add some contrast to the hostas but for now the heucheras serve that purpose.

Also if you are thinking about dividing your hostas now is a good time!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Seedling Updates From the Garage Greenhouse

Last year I set up a small greenhouse in my garage.  It was a gift from my parents and has come in quite handy.  I keep it in the garage next to one of the windows and have an old aquarium light set up for the top shelf.  This little greenhouse is the perfect place to harden off my seedlings before planting them outside in the vegetable garden.  The temperatures in the garage fluctuate quite a bit ranging from a low around 40 degrees to the 70's on warm March days. I keep a digital thermometer in the garage that can read temperature and humidity to make sure that the seedlings are in no danger of temperature extremes. If the temperatures are forecast to be cold I'll zip the opening closed and if the humidity is too high I'll open the plastic covering. The plants will gradually get used to the temperatures and be better able to tolerate the temperatures when I finally plant them outside.

Right now I have most of our tomatoes in peat pots directly underneath the supplemental fluorescent lights.

I just planted a few canteloupe, cucmbers, and watermelon seeds this week.  Since they may not transplant easily peat pots are an ideal way to reduce transplant shock and still start them early.  It will be a few days before they come up.  The water melons are the famous 'Moon and Stars' heirloom variety.  I can't wait to photograph them in the garden! Of course I really can't wait to eat them!

These little cosmos seedlings will enter the self seeding garden when the safe planting date is past. I'm pre-starting many of the plants that need to go into that garden to ensure that I get it off to good start.  After this year I will rely mostly on the natural germination of seeds from those plants in the garden. I'm using an old roasting pan as a seed flat with small terracotta pots. This makes a pretty good setup for bottom watering.

This week I started over 60 other seeds in this makeshift seed tray. I took a cardboard flat and covered it with a plastic trash bag, then I taped the ends. This will keep the box from disintegrating with moisture and gives me a convenient place to use all those saved sixpacks.  I made sure to write down what we planted in each of these packs and kept each variety consistant within the six packs so I don't confuse myself.

Here's a quick look at one of the heucheras I planted from seed.  I was able to successfully transplant 7 plants into peat pots. Two seedlings were pretty small so they tagged along with a couple older siblings until they grow more sizable. Nine heucheras all accounted for!

I also use the greenhouse to grow some of my cuttings from my plant propagation experiments. I've already taken cuttings of catmint, several salvias, and a 'Powis Castle' Artemesia.

Three of the catmint cuttings rooted already while there are a dozen or so fresh cuttings working on roots.  Spring is the best time to take softwood cuttings of your favorite perennials!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Yoshino Cherry (Prunus x yedoensis)

There are few trees that I know of that can rival the beauty of the Yoshino Cherry tree. I have a fondness for most plants in the prunus genus but the Yoshino is a special favorite of mine. It's white blooms seem to glow in the sunlight and after they have fallen coat the ground like a luminescent snowfall. They are extremely easy to care for and are excellent here in Tennessee. When my two Bradford pears decide to split I'll be sure to add more cherry trees, odds are they will be Yoshinos. They may not bloom at the same time, but the more natural tree form and the solid wood of the cherry makes it a good replacement for the Bradford pear tree.

The Yoshino Cherry is the same cherry tree that was given to the United States by Japan and has become a popular seasonal attraction in Washington D.C.. In fact yesterday marked the beginning of the National Cherry Festival. According to the Cherry Blossom Festival website peak blooming should be between April 1-4 for that area of the country. For more information about the Yoshino Cherry's history you can look back at a post I wrote last year.

The first two pictures were of more established trees in my parent's yard. The first was planted before they purchased the home and the second one was planted a few years ago. Yoshino Cherries grow fast but their branching patterns are much stronger than the more vase shaped ornamental pear trees I mentioned earlier. This little cherry tree is a new one I planted in our yard. It's located just behind the rain garden.

As you peer closer at the blooms you can see why it is so well liked! Once the blooms disappear the foliage will take over to enjoy until fall.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Lawnmower Covenant

You may not now this but there is a divine influence on the gardening world.  It is said that:

When a gardener properly takes care of his lawn, allowing it to grow high, only cutting a third at a time, and takes care not to poison the earth with unnecessary fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides that a sign will be given to bless the gardener's future efforts.

 Yes that rainbow stopped in my backyard right after I mowed.  Pretty neat, right? I'd better go find that pot o' gold!

Lovin' My Lawn!

I have to admit I'm lovin' my lawn right now. This is our third spring in this home and the lawn is beginning to look very nice. It's not perfect, in fact far from it. Weeds can be found within a few feet of anywhere you look but the fescue is taking over. Areas that used to be clumps of weeds are now filled with new grass planted in the last two falls. I have to admit something else, I have only aerated one time, two years ago and I have never fertilized. Never. Now it's possible that I have received some runoff fertilizer from my neighbors lawns but I can safely attribute most of my turf's success to two important lawn techniques: Cutting the grass high and fall overseeding.

Cutting the grass high is extremely important for fescue lawns like mine. When you cut the grass short it causes two things to happen: it limits the length of the grass's root system and it allows weeds to see the sun. All plants like sunlight, some more than others, and most lawn weeds think it's the best thing since sliced bread! Chickweed, henbit, ragweed, thistle, and dandelions all love the sun. That's not to say that weeds won't grow underneath the shade of the grass but they will grow less vigorously which can mean the difference between controlling your weeds and an outbreak of unwanted invaders. Cutting the grass high definitely limits the light the weeds receive while allowing the grass to form a more established root system. It also encourages the roots to grow deep which makes the grass more drought tolerant since it can reach the water under the soil's surface. Most of the time I have the mower on one of the top two deck height settings. In the summer this is especially important. Grass will grow at the same rate no matter how high you cut it so the old myth that you will have to cut it more often is just that, a myth.

Fall overseeding isn't a secret but I can't figure out why more people don't do it. Overseeding thickens the lawn by adding more seed during the cool season in the fall. The grass germinates and sends down roots where they will continue to grow through the cold season. When spring comes the grass is ready to flush out with new growth invigorated by the root system it began establishing in the fall.

To me these are two of the most important techniques for maintaining a fescue lawn. One more quick tip, never mow the lawn when it doesn't need it! Every summer I see people out mowing their lawns in the middle of dry spells (most likely out of habit). Maybe they just need something to do? Maybe they are trying to raise the price of gas in America? If the grass isn't growing it doesn't need mowing!

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Border Garden Corridor

Everybody has a spot in their yard that needs definition. Whether it is a shared boundary line with the neighbors or just a border between garden rooms, people like to define their spaces. Another major project I tackled last weekend was the side border garden. As it's creative name describes, it is on our side border, and it's purpose is to define our boundary line. It's also just behind the Self Sowing Garden. As you look past the front porch and to the left you can see an area of darkened mulch. That's where I'm taking you today.

Here's a closer look. In the front is the Self Sowing Garden and behind it is what will be the deciduous grove that will one day create summer shade along this side of our house. It's hard to see but many of the plants are already there. A crape myrtle on the left and two dogwoods form a line with an Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) and four hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis). I've loved hemlocks ever since we lived in East Tennessee and went on hikes in the Smoky Mountains. In front of those deciduous trees are a loropetalum and a viburnum as well as two dead azaleas. Yep not everything grows for me. They were rescued plants from the discount rack that just didn't make it. Although I did manage to get one azalea cutting that lived through the winter.

From this angle you can see the hemlock hedge row that will one day provide privacy on this side of the house. Until then I'm planting some fast growing crape myrtles in between each hemlock to provide a very fast growing privacy screen. When the hemlocks reach a good size I'll cut out the crape myrtles.
Here's a view from the backyard. Once things fill out on this side the view of the neighbor's yard should be somewhat obscured. I hope to keep the grass nice and green and may eventually add some stepping stones set below the level of the grass.

For now all you can really see is mulch but underneath that mulch are layers of grass and leaves gradually composting underneath the cover of newspapers (some even date back to 2006!). Over time the soil will build up and become better for whatever plants find their home here. Stay tuned to watch this area come alive!

Edit: I may end up keeping the Crape myrtles, you've convinced me! The plan was to have fast growing trees for more immediate shade then to removed them for the hemlocks. It all depends on how things work so we'll see how it goes.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Birdbath Garden: March Update

This past weekend was a big work weekend for me.  Not only did I tackled the paths on the garden but I had a couple other projects in mind to accomplish.  One of which was our Birdbath Garden expansion.  This project is also a small memorial garden for our cat Amber who passed away in December.

This is how the birdbath garden started. It began with a small copper birdbath that I attached to a 4"x4" post that came from an old wooden palette. I stained the 4"x4" with a cedar stain to improve it's color.   Afterward I planted a few reliable plants like coneflowers, irises, and coreopsis.  The irises came from my parent's house and the coreopsis from seed I gathered at my in-laws house.

This is how the garden looked in June of 2008. I added salvias, miscanthus, mums, and a butterfly bush to the mix.  The butterfly bush became a bird favorite for the shelter it provided.  I think I add salvias to almost every garden area, I just can't get enough salvia!

By July I had added a natural stone border to define the boundaries between the garden and the yard. A purple leaf plum was added but I later removed it as the deer seemed to like it too much. It's now in a location by the road where I'm hoping the deer don't find it.

Later in the season I found a viburnum and added it to the garden.  This little spot just keeps growing larger and larger. This picture was taken in the fall and you can see the mums blooming around the edges.  The coreopsis faded too quickly since I let it go to seed way too early. You can keep them going all summer if you deadhead properly. There is also an 'Appalachian Spring' dogwood on the other side of the garden that we added. 'Appalachian Spring' was developed at the University of Tennessee and is the most anthracnose resistant variety of dogwood bred so far. Too bad it's not deer proof.

Here's what it looks like now. It's not complete by any means but it is well on it's way.

I added a simple bench area. The seats for the bench haven't been added yet but they will be soon.  I'm using reclaimed wood from an old deck to make the seats. In fact I also used the same reclaimed deck wood to create an edging for the gravel area to help keep the stones contained. Behind the seat is a rock border made form natural stone we gathered.  We need to collect more stone to complete the border all away around the new section.

Here's another angle on the bench area. I cleared out the grass in the gravel area then covered with newspapers and landscape fabric. I topped the fabric with a combination of small round stones and pea gravel.  The stumps came from a tree cutting project at my in-laws house last fall. 
When you look at the garden from this angle you can see how large the new section is. Lot's of room for planting!
At the end of the garden on the left there is a little witch hazel that was given away last year at the Bloom 'N Garden Expo. The deer grazed on it last year but I'll let it go for now until I'm sure it won't make it. It will be fun to see this new area grow throughout 2009!

What still needs done:
  • Planting
  • Finish the bench
  • Add the stone border

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Tomato Sequential Deep Planting

If you're like me and planted your tomatoes from seed a few weeks ago you may start to notice the roots beginning to move beyond your original potting medium.  I used the peat pellet system for starting our peppers and tomatoes and noticed recently that the roots are extending beyond the pellets. What does this mean? Time to get a bigger pot! I'm using a technique that I'm calling sequential deep planting.  Basically I'm taking the best method for planting tomatoes, deep planting, and adding an intermediate step to it.  It's pretty simple, just dig a hole deep enough to cover all of the tomato plant except for the top couple leaves. Because tomatoes are vine plants they have the ability to grow roots all along the stem.  When you place the tomato stem under the soil it will grow roots. More roots mean the tomato can take in more water and will establish itself faster in the garden.

Sequential deep planting is potting the tomatoes up into larger pots in between seed growth stages and garden planting stages. You may already do this but I think it's worth talking about. Here's how I did it.

I used peat pots. You can get other mediums some of which are made of other biodegradable materials, like cow manure, but these were easy and convenient. Newspapers or cardboard would probably work as well.

Then I took my tomatoes, some of which were 6-8 inches high, and had a short photo op.  They like to pose.  They are pretty aren't they?

I put the tomato plants right into the empty peat pots.  You can put a little dirt in the bottom if you want, either way should be fine. Right now I want to generate as many roots along the stem as possible and shorten the length of the stem. Shorter, more compact plants with more roots grow better than their long and legging counterparts. This is especially true if you are buying transplants from the store.  Definitely avoid the leggy ones. (You can trench plant those if that's all the store has.)
Then I filled up the little pots with soil and made sure that the tomato plants stayed as centered in the pots as possible.


After filling them up I added water and put them in our garage greenhouse to help harden them off. In a couple weeks I should be able to plant them outside with nice sized root balls ready to grow. That's when I'll plant them deep, for the second time.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

What's Growing in My Garden?

I'm glad you asked! I've been updating you on the status of the raised bed garden over the last several days but I have mostly written about the structure of the garden like the mulched paths.  I haven't really written about what is growing in there.  It's time to remedy the situation!

The first picture is a little radish sprout. We grow these every year because they are very easy to do. Unfortunately I don't know very many ways to make use of a radish aside from salads or eating raw in dip. Still radishes are delicious and we like to have them around!

These little sugar snap pea sprouts aren't doing much for us yet. The peas just haven't grown as rapidly as I was hoping nor have they had a whole lot of success in the germination department. Two plants are coming up.  I wonder who snuck in to eat those peas I planted? Pesky rabbits! I planted the peas before I had the fence up. I'd better get some more peas out there but it might be too late.

And now for our perennial fruiting favorite the strawberry! I have one 4'x6' bed filled with strawberry plants. When I decided to remodel the garden area the strawberries had to be worked into the plan. I touched their bed last and moved the strawberries while dividing them at the same time. Before the division they occupied about 3'x4' of space, now they take up the whole bed.  Please forgive the dents in the soil, a neighbor's dog romped through the bed in the night and left depressions in my newly leveled soil. I'll have to wait until after the strawberries have produced this year to do any significant work on the soil.

Hopefully these strawberries are ready to produce their fruit this year. Strawberries produce runners that form new plants where they touch the ground making them one of the easiest plants to vegetatively propagate. As the bed fills with new strawberry plants I'll remove the older plants and allow the newly formed plants to prosper. Don't expect first year strawberry plants to produce anything significant. It's a good idea to remove the blossoms during the first year to send energy into the roots then the second year should produce a good crop.

Other vegetables not pictured in this post that are growing in the garden:

Garlic, Red Potatoes, Onions, Spinach, and Lettuce

The garden is growing, slowly, yet surely!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Vegetable Garden Update Part 2

Today was another good work day in the vegetable garden. I managed to get all the mulch laid on the pathways and even added a few stepping stones in one section. I'll add a few more every now and then and eventually I'll have them around the whole garden. As I was working around the garden putting the mulch down I realized that the outside edges are not quite wide enough to conveniently maneuver the wheelbarrow. Fortunately the permanent fence isn't built yet and I can widen the outside paths as necessary.  Here's a before and after look at the vegetable garden.  The first picture is the garden without mulch.  The second is with mulch. I'll try to get some more pictures of the garden from the ground soon.

Pathways are important in gardens to avoid compaction in the growing areas. Compacted soil is harder for roots to penetrate which isn't good for plants. Eventually I'd like to add in some steppable ground covers like elfin thyme to cover the pathways interspersed with the stepping stones.  

What's left to do?
  • Till the 6'x10' vegetable beds. 
  • Make the outside perennial and flower beds.
  • Plant the vegetables.
  • Build the fence.
There's still plenty of work ahead! Isn't that always true?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Vegetable Garden Update Part 1

Friday afternoon and evening I was in the yard and garden vigorously hauling compost from truck to the raised beds. Fortunately one yard of compost was all that was necessary to complete the filling of the beds.   Saturday's task will be mulch: mulch for the garden paths and for various other locations around the yard. I can't wait to see the mulch pathways rather than the exposed dirt that is there now. You can compare this overhead shot to our vegetable garden layout.

Here's a breakdown of the raised beds:
2 - 8'x4' Beds (32 square feet each)
2 - 6'x4' Beds (24 square feet each)
4 - 3'x4' Beds (12 square feet each)
4 - 2'x4' Beds (8 square feet each)

The total square footage of the raised beds comes to 192 square feet not including the two 6'x10' beds that will be normal inground beds. Those two beds would bring the total up to 312 square feet. This may seem small compared to many gardens but one of the advantages to using raised beds is that you can grow more produce in a smaller amount of space. This garden will provide us with more than enough food throughout the growing season.

I'll update you on the next part of the vegetable garden in my next post!

Friday, March 20, 2009

A Sedum Garden

I haven't showed this little garden yet in its entirety. The garden is still incomplete and you really can't see the effect I'm looking for yet but here's a glimpse at our sedum garden in March. Between our driveway/garage area and the front sidewalk there was a small wedge of dirt.  There used to be an evergreen in this location but bagworms decided lunch was more important than the aesthetics of the garden. It's funny how they can be so selfish to put their own well being above that of my plants.  It was also a little bit of a problem spot since the gutter aims right into the bed which would make it hard for plants to dry out during the winter when you don't want them too wet and hard for them to get water in the summer when there wasn't any falling from the clouds.

To solve this problem I did a couple things.
  • Connected a perforated drain pipe to the gutter and aimed it toward the driveway and the rain garden across the pavement. This now removes the extra water for the bed while still watering the area.
  • Removed all the weeds and dead plant material, tree included.
  • Covered with newspapers and mulched.
  • Added as many sedums as I could.
The sedums were the perfect choice for the area. They are extremely drought tolerant, easy to grow and maintain, propagate easily, and look really cool! As the sedums grow I pinch off whole branches and just stick them where I want them. This "pinch and stick" technique has multiplied the sedums significantly. It works especially well with the 'Blue Spruce' sedum and the 'Dragon's Blood' sedum. It's hard to see from the picture but there are several sprigs of sedums in the bare spots that have just recently been planted. For the 'Autumn Joy' sedums I used the cutting in a water jar method and for my mystery sedum I used both of the methods above. I have sedum acre but haven't planted it as I am fearing a complete take over.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Euonymous fortunei, a Portrait of an Invasive

Have you ever wondered why some plants are considered invasive? It's usually because if the growing conditions are even slightly favorable they take over. Invasiveness can be due to a number of traits like rapid growth, prolific reseeding, and rooting vine habits. Euonymous fortunei is one such plant in which I have observed to have at least two of these traits. It demonstrates rapid growth which by itself doesn't doom it to the invasive list, but it also shows the ability to root anywhere, anytime, and anyhow!

It's variegated leaves make it attractive to plant in foundation gardens but if you look closely you will see a patch of aerial roots. These roots are capable of making a new plant where ever they may find suitable soil. Many plants that tend to have vine-like growth have the ability to root like this. The roots can help anchor them to other surfaces which aids them in their quest to conquer walls, fences, and other solid surfaces. Think ivy. This particular Euonymous is 'Emerald Gaiety' which is "supposed" to be a shrub form. Guess what? Someone forgot to tell it that! We have two in our sidewalk garden that I must keep well trimmed or else they will take over the world! Maybe not in the way kudzu will, a little slower perhaps, but you get the point.

This is one of those plants that is probably better left on the store shelves. It looks nice, but sure doesn't play that way!

Pictures with tulips are from Spring of 2008