Who Planted This?


Whenever I drive around and see stands of this plant by the roadside, I always wish I could stop the car and get photos. This is one of my all-time favorite plants. Never mind that most people consider it a noxious weed that grows in roadside ditches. I find it just beautiful, with its huge stalks of yellow flowers that open slowly over a period of weeks.

You can see that this was probably bird planted. It’s in a little weedy area that’s a bit of a no-man’s land on the edge of my wildlife garden and my neighbor’s lawn. I try to weed out the truly bad stuff that appears there–ragweed and the invasives–but I can see in the photo that there’s some bittersweet (for a change) sneaking up in there. I’ll have to try to whack it back.  Getting it all out is near impossible.

Ditto for the Virginia Creeper in the area. I don’t even try because that’s a great bird plant. I just try to keep it from running amok through the garden.

This plant is a verbascum, although don’t ask me variety. There’s a second coming up right behind it which makes me sure it was bird-planted. I learned in Colorado that the call it Miner’s Tallow because they would use the stalks for “candles.” And we think mining is a tough occupation today!

Herbalists will boil and strain the leaves (which are felty) and use them for coughs and bronchitis.  And I’ve heard tell that campers will improvise and use the leaves as toilet tissue. Talk about tough! Whew!

I believe I will just enjoy the flowers in the garden and by the roadside, thank you very much!


Why Are There Flowers in the Vegetable Garden?

The easiest and quickest answer to my post’s question is “why NOT flowers in the vegetable garden?” But of course there are lots of answers to this question.

When I first started my garden, I had just one sunny garden, so I just naturally grew all my sun loving flowers and my vegetables together. There didn’t seem to be anything strange about that–and I wasn’t growing castor beans, so it wasn’t really a problem.

Gradually, the flowers overtook that garden, so I moved the veggies up to a raised bed in a different part of the yard. But I didn’t omit the flowers. Why?

First of all, we need flowers if we want vegetables, if you remember my post from last Friday about some of my retail gardening customers who used a few too many pesticides and had no bees and therefore no vegetables. So flowers will lure in the bees and other pollinators to the garden and while they’re there bumbling around (sometimes literally) they’ll be happy to pollinate your vegetables for you as well so long as you’re not poisoning them into oblivion.

Next flowers can be beneficial in luring some not so nice insects away from your perfectly tasty crops. Aphids are a mild pest in my part of the country but in other parts of the country I know they’re a 12 month nuisance. There are plants that repel them and plants that attract them. In my garden, I have always found that nasturtiums were aphid magnets. I’ve not seen this listed anywhere but all I need to do is to plant them and the next thing I know they’re covered in aphids. It’s a shame too because I love to grow them for their edible qualities and I can rarely get them to last long enough.

Many herbs will repel aphids, particularly those one would expect like onions, garlic and chives. One that is a bit unexpected is feverfew, but be cautious about letting that self-sow or you’ll have it forever. I don’t mind–you might.

Water, Water Everywhere at the Connecticut Flower and Garden Show

Pondless waterfall

I have to confess, I was way more impressed with this little feature than the Spoiler was.  He couldn’t believe that I took quite so many photos as I did.   He of course didn’t realize it was a pondless waterfall, not just an ordinary fountain. As a water gardening expert and former retailer of Aquascapes products, I knew immediately what this was and how well done it was.

What I couldn’t quite believe, however, was how many other landscapes were displaying water features.  I know this vendor and he is a an Aquascapes retailer. We did business many times when I was in retail gardening. He’s quite good at what he does.

But it got me thinking about water features. How many folks actually have them. Even 10 years ago they were relatively rare and I suspect with the trend toward native plants and sustainability ponds are becoming endangered species. Most folks don’t realize they can be very eco-friendly.

In fact, this next landscape, which was so dramatically different from everything else in the landscape display area, endeavored to show just that: that native plants, including bog areas and rain gardens, can be lovely too.  It was different but it caught my eye and it was definitely lovely in its own way.

native garden

The bog area in the garden is in the distance, at the upper right, with the Spoiler, the “crusty old New England native,” as I described him, leaning on a table waiting for me to finish taking photos.

Of course there were far more spectacular–and unrealistic–examples of the use of water too.


This was the set most of the TV folks were doing their live shots from.  You can see the “waterfall” flowing from the dining table into the “pool” below.  Just out of sight in this shot are the stepping stone rocks that take you across to the garden area. In another portion of this landscape is a little sitting area with Adirondack chairs flanking a stone fireplace. It was lovely but again, not something you’ll find in the average backyard.

Still, most of these displays, like most home and lifestyle magazines, are aspirational rather than something someone is going to install “whole hog” in the backyard. They’re like living idea books.

And it was so wonderful to see all the plants, trees, and flowers in bloom, particularly after such a difficult cold, snowy couple of weeks.


This 1936 Farmall tractor just had a trailer full of daffodils but it is still lovely.  And the wall that you see?  This is what’s below it.


Because of course, no landscape is complete without a water feature!  Actually I thought this one was lovely with the little ferns tucked into the sides.

Finally, lest you think there was nothing for the house plant lovers (besides acres of house plants for sale, of course) there was this sweet display.

orchids & succulents

It was this eye-catching display of orchids & succulents–something that would probably never work in real life but which looked great here. And yes, this display had a water feature too, as I recall, complete with a wagon wheel type contraption going around. It wasn’t to my liking so I didn’t even take a photo.

A Great Year For Begonias

Non-stop begonia

One thing this very dry year has been fabulous for is begonias. I almost always plant up this planter with an identical combination of peachy non-stop begonia, red dracena or phormium (which I save from year to year) and then two purple or blue trailers–usually some variety of torenia and calibrachoa.

Most years I have to nurse the thing along, and in very wet years like last year, I may have to re-plant the begonia once or twice because it rots away from all the nature supplied moisture. I’ve never quite seen one put on a show like this year.

giant wax begonia

This has generally been true of my container grown begonias. They’ve adored the heat–and no humidity we’ve had this year. I didn’t grow any angel-wings, but this “giant” version of a wax begonia has also done fabulously for me.

perennial begonia grandis alba

On the other hand, this perennial begonia, while just beginning to bloom, seems to be really struggling this year. While always late to come back, it didn’t return until almost July this year. And the cooler summer means it has really struggled to take off. Some years you can barely see my steps for all the begonias
(which the Spoiler hates). This is not going to be one of those years.

And the ones in the flower bed (behind the planter with pink wax begonia) are barely 4″ high. It’s doubtful they’ll even bloom this year. That’s fine–these things are prolific self-sowers and I don’t really need any more of them. But I’d hate to lose what I do have because I do love them!

Gardening For Pollinators

Much has been made about the honeybees and Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). You may have read about the disease, White Nose Fungus, that threatens our native bats. And this winter the monarch habitat shrunk to its lowest acreage of all time.

It’s easy to get discouraged in the face of all this terrible news (never mind the truly devastating news that has come out lately about the climate!) But most of us can only change our little piece of earth.

So rather than give up all hope, I thought I’d focus on different ways to help pollinators in June. This first idea comes from the Home Garden Seed Association and includes a list of flowering plants (annuals, perennials and herbs) that can be grown from seed and that will attract pollinators. Of course you can also plant the plants as well.

Please don’t panic if I say “pollinators.” I don’t just mean bees. Of course that’s what everyone thinks of when they hear pollinators because bees of all sorts are primary pollinators. For an interesting breakdown on what is pollinated by honeybees (non-native bees) and by our native bees, read this.

But there are so many more pollinators besides the bees! There are insects, birds and butterflies and moths. And while I know no one is going to be excited about gardening for ants, wait until I tell you what they “pollinate.” Maybe that will change your mind at least about not pouring poison (or hot water) on every ant hill you see!

So let’s spend June helping our pollinators. They need all the help they can get!

What Happened to My….

chewed hosta leaves

This is a prime example of why you shouldn’t automatically spray a pesticide when you see chewed leaves. Because while there’s no denying that these leaves have been chewed, in this case, the remedy calls for a repellent, not an insecticide.

The hosta has provided a tasty snack for the resident groundhog (or woodchuck, depending on your regional preference–it’s still the same animal) family. These creatures are one of the most notoriously difficult garden pests. They tunnel, they climb and they have voracious appetites for greenery. And once a woodchuck has established a liking for your property, he will return year after year to mate and raise a family, ensuring repeated destruction.

The only proven method of control is fencing that not only extends four feet in height, but also goes at least a foot underground–and this proves impractical for most folks. Some call in a licensed wildlife person to relocate the animal.

In some states, it is legal to shoot them–it is not legal to do so in my state (much to the chagrin of some gardeners, I know.) I have gotten extremely lucky by planting herbs around the perimeter of the vegetable garden and only putting in peppers and tomatoes. He (or she) has sampled a pepper, found it not to his liking and has left the rest of the garden in peace for two years in a row. I can’t promise this approach will work for everyone.

Repellents to try would be the same ones that would work for deer and rabbits (but do not try them on edibles unless the label specifically says that they are approved for use on edibles!) and would be those that contain hot pepper, perhaps mixed with rotten egg.

March Is The Cruelest Month, Really

TS Eliot’s poem, The Wasteland opens with the following lines:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Now of course Eliot lived in England and wasn’t, to the best of my knowledge, much of a gardener despite his reference to lilacs.  But here in the “temperate” Northeast, I’ve always felt that March was the cruelest month for gardeners anyway, tempting us out of our homes with occasional gentle breezes and then dumping snow (or worse, ice) on us the next day (or even the same night)

What’s a gardener to do?  Well, there are a few things that it’s perfectly safe to do this time of year.  And there are some things that could ruin–and yes, I absolutely mean ruin!–your gardening for the rest of the season , if not for several seasons to come.

In this post I’ll talk about the things that it’s safe to do out of doors on those lovely balmy false spring days (because although March first begins meteorological spring, many of us know that “actual”–or gardening” spring isn’t going to begin until much later).

For those of you fortunate enough to be living at latitudes warmer than mine,  you can just tuck these ideas away until you need them next year in February (or even mid-January if you’re lucky enough to live that far South!)

One of the best things to do in the early spring is to prune deciduous trees and shrubs.  A caution here–prune only things that flower in the summer or later if you don’t want to lose the current year’s bloom (save the pruning of lilacs, azaleas and rhododendrons until later in the season.)  And only prune the blue or pink hydrangeas after bloom–most, unless they are newer varieties, flower on last year’s wood.

But this is a great time to prune later blooming shrubs, ‘Annabelle’ and panicle type hydrangeas, and to take dead wood and suckers off  trees.

It’s much easier to add new mulch or to refresh your mulch if the plants haven’t leafed out. Also, the sooner you complete this task, the more weeds seeds you smother.  An ideal mulch depth is 2-3″.  Remember to keep mulch away from the root flare of trees.  No “mulch volcanoes” going up the trunks of trees, please.

Cut back any ornamental grasses that were left standing wintered over.  This task is easier before they resume growth.  Larger clumps can be tied up and cut off with a hedge trimmer about 4-6″ from the ground.

Remember to stay off soggy ground, whether it’s the lawn or your perennial and shrub beds.  Walking on soggy soil–or working in it–can compact the soil.  To test if it’s safe to work in the garden, squeeze a handful of soil in your fist.  If it sticks together like a snowball, the soil is too wet to work in or walk on safely.  Once the soil crumbles in your hand, you’re good to go.

On Monday I’ll talk about cutting back perennials, making new garden beds and selecting plants for those beds.

Beware the Subversive Flowers

Well, it’s happened again, this time in New Hampshire (you know, the Live Free or Die state?  Yeah, right–apparently not in condominium complexes).  A woman who had permission from the developer of her condominium project to plant perennials and shrubs that she brought from her late mother’s garden in and around her condominium unit has received no fewer than 13 “cease and desist” notices from her Homeowner’s Association for inappropriate “development of the property” according to this story in the Seacoastonline.

What sorts of perennials and shrubs are we discussing?  Is it something rangy and weedy like wildflowers?  (Not that it would matter if it were, mind you, just that those are less likely to be acceptable in a community where people live in close quarters).  Not at all.  She’s growing bearded iris, lavender, hydrangea, daisies (no variety specified) and tulips.

Unfortunately, she may lose her case because in common interest communities, like condominiums, when you buy a property you buy being aware of the restrictions involved.  And the developer did advise her that once the condominium board was established, her right to have those flowers might not continue.

I do think she has a good argument, however, for the law of being “grandfathered in.”  She should be able to maintain those plants, as is, as long as she lives there and is able to maintain them.  Once she sells her unit, however, it should revert to condominium board rules and regulations–unless the board comes to its senses and realizes that she is actually raising the property values of all the units with her plantings.

Darned fools!

Gardeners’ Expectations

I had a conversation a week ago with some friends and fellow Connecticut Horticulture Society Board Members about gardeners’ expectations.

The conversation began because our newsletter editor had been talking about ideas that one of her writers posed to her for an articles about why the size of the pots in nurseries was increasing and what that meant for the nursery growers.  It meant lower profits for growers but larger profits for retailers.

My take on the grower versus retailer conversation was entirely different.  I said that even six years ago when I was working retail, gardeners wanted large pots for instant color and I was sure, that with the proliferation of the DIY shows that show “instant garden” overnight that the trend was to buy huge pots of everything.

I recounted my days of retail when if we were lucky the customer came in on the Wednesday before a big party (and if we were unlucky it was the Friday before) and said, “I’m having a party on Saturday and I need color–I mean, color!” 

Now that customer wasn’t interested in 6-packs of annuals–or even 4″ pots for that matter.  Nor was she interested in anything she had to plant.  She wanted it done up for her and she wanted to tak it away right that minute!

And they DIY shows that show instant garden and instant landscape–the customer goes away for an after noon and comes back to a finished garden, often with a pond or fountain or other water feature, patio, gazebo, you name it–have only made the problem worse.  No one wants to sit and wait for a plant or shrub to grow–or grow up–they want when they want, when they want it, and when they want it is now!

Granted not everyone is like this.  I went plant shopping with a few friends and the 3 of us were buying the quart-sized perennials because we knew that soon enough they’d grow into big, beautiful plants.  And besides, the smaller a hole I have to dig in my rocky clay, the happier I am.  I know there are others like me or they wouldn’t be selling quart-sized perennials any more.

But for the most part, look around.  Notice all those large pots at the garden center.  And notice what’s in people’s carts–it is usually the bigger pots with the blooms on them.

Unless your party’s on Saturday, that’s not a wise buying strategy.  Let the plant bloom its fool head off in your garden–not in the pot!

What Should I Grow?

So let’s say you’re in a part of the country that’s just getting started with vegetables–or, perhaps because of the flooding in the mid-section of the country, you haven’t been able to put in the vegetable garden you thought about starting yet.  What to do?

Well, any good garden center will have a bewildering array of started plants for you to choose from so that’s not really a problem if you haven’t started your own seeds.  But how do you choose among the choices?  Pick the ones you’ve heard of and hope for the best?

While there’s nothing wrong with “tried and true” varieties–that is how they got to become old favorites after all–perhaps you’re looking to do something a little more adventurous.  Or perhaps you want to try some heirlooms but aren’t sure where to start.

A good place to start is at Johnny’s Select Seeds web site.  They have a spot where they recommend the best vegetables, herbs and flowers, based on their field trials.  Now keep in mind that Johnny’s fields are located in Maine so their growing conditions are likely to be somewhat different from yours (or even mine).  However, a good evaluation from gardeners can go a long way–it’s like a recommendation from a trusted friend (with the caveat, of course, that this friend would like to sell you its seeds).

Their blog is also pretty good and can be accessed right from the page with the recommendations.

Now, armed with some names of varieties, you can set out for the garden centers and try to hunt down something other than just a ‘Big Boy’ tomato or a ‘Marketmore’ cucumber.  Why would you want to buy anything created specifically for the market, anyway?