Plants Can’t Read

I make no secret about the fact that I am a shrub tester for Proven Winners. And they have some absolutely marvelous shrubs (as well as some marvelous perennials–and stay tuned–next year they are coming out with edibles including a tomato that can take some heat for southern gardens and a basil that is resistant to mildew. Both sound very promising!)

But every so often there’s a disconnect between what a plant should be and what it turns out to be. I call this the “plants can’t read” syndrome. Why do I call it that?

Well, you know those wonderful tags that come with all your plants? They have height and spacing and color and zone and lots are even coming with a QR code now to snap with your phone for even more care information? All that is great to give you a general idea.

It’s usually fairly accurate for annuals which grow for a season and then die.

It’s often accurate for perennials–but not always. Perennials still can surprise you with more–or less-growth than you expect depending on the unique micro-climate of your yard.

But shrubs, in general, have an ability to surprise you, despite what their tags say. Why is this? Well despite the fact that plants are “trialled” by growers, shrubs take a longer time to reach full maturity–so even the growers don’t know their full growth potential.

A couple of good examples of this are the Knockout rose and Endless Summer Hydrangea (Rosa ‘Radrazz’ and Hydrangea macrophylla bailmer, respectively). Here in my climate, both well exceeded their original growth estimates of 4-5′ and 4′ respectively.

My Knockout rose towered well above my head for several years, topping out at about 7′.

My Endless Summer hydrangea was slightly better behaved–it maybe got to be about 5 1/2-6 feet tall and wide. A few abnormally cold winters have caused me to prune both of them back very hard–back to about where they should be, into the 4′ range.

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And then there’s this little issue–a plant that has no idea who or what it wants to be. This plant is a Rose of Sharon known as Li’ Kim (hibiscus syriacus ‘Antong Two’) .

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And this plant is a Rose of Sharon, also, Lil’ Kim.

Here’s a close up of the second Lil Kim’s flowers.

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Notice any issues yet?

According to the Proven Winners web site, the mature size of this plant is 36-48 inches. The white version of Lil’ Kim is currently towering over the neighboring kolkwitzia (another Proven Winners plant that is doing exactly what it’s supposed to! This one is Dream Catcher or kolkwitzia amabilis). Its mature height is listed at 72-108″ and it is about mature at 8′ plus.

So I would say the white version of Lil’ Kim has totally “reverted” to its parentage–and has from day 1, I might add–at no time was this ever a dwarf plant so there is no question of me not cutting out a leader than reverted or something.

With respect to the purple version of Lil’ Kim–what is there to say? She’s still not dwarf and she’s not even the right color!

And still Proven Winners continues to sell this plant. Hmm. I hope others don’t have my experiences!

So that’s just a couple of examples of plants not “reading” their tags and not knowing what they’re supposed to be–how tall, what color, etc.

This wouldn’t be so bad if I hadn’t put them in the front of the shrub border. Ah well….

Transitioning Your Outdoor Palette to Fall

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Remember this summery shot from Labor Day when I was bringing in the house plants?

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This is the same shot, taken 2 days later. Notice the difference?

Yes, some of the same plants are still there. But I have brought in others to emphasize the  autumnal colors of fall–the dark purple of the sweet potato vine, the dark stripes on my two banana plants, the fall-like colors in the crotons.

It’s a subtle shift, but it helps pick up the burgundy stems of the begonias that are nearby, and the red Japanese maple.

As we transition into autumn, how can you move some plants around to take advantage of the changing seasons?

It’s Pollinator Week–What About Plants?

On Monday I talked about the importance of native plants. I said that if you had a choice, and if you liked native plants,  you should choose them because wildlife will always seek out native plants.

For all of you who don’t have natives in your yard (& I include myself in that group because a large portion of my yard is planted with ornamental plants) I will refer you to Douglas Tallamay’s still excellent  book Bringing Nature Home. It was there that I  learned about the true importance of native plants, and that an native  oak tree will feed several hundred different types of creatures whereas some of our imported ornamentals feed none. They’re lovely to look at but absolutely barren in terms of value to wildlife.

But that doesn’t mean that all our ornamentals have no value to wildlife.  Anyone who has watched bees on Japanese pieris early in the spring knows that that shrub, imported ornamental that it is, is quite valuable to the early emerging bumble bees in my region.

Similarly, hydrangeas of all sorts are usually covered in pollinators  (at least in my yard). I have seen several different types of bees, a couple of different types of wasps,  and a few different types of flies all on my hydrangeas (yes, I have a lot of hydrangeas).

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Another non-native ornamental,  roses, also attract bees. This Oso Easy rose was full of several different kinds of bees,  none of which obligingly posed for me. I saw several smaller bees, plus honeybees and bumblebees all on this large shrub.

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Catnip (nepeta) and lavender are two more perennials that are always covered in bees of all sorts. You can see a bumble bees on the nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’ in the above photo.

And speaking of herbs, we are told to plant various sorts of herbs to assist different types of pollinators: parsley,  dill, anything with an umbel flower. None of those are “natives.”

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In the heat last week,  some of my leaf lettuce went to seed. But the smaller bees are loving the flowers so I am letting those stay as well.

So if you are feeling a little inferior,  perhaps,  because you don’t have native plants, or enough native plants, or the right kind of native plants, fear not! You can still garden for pollinators and they’ll love you!

Picking Good Plants–Don’t Buy The Renegade

Once you get to the garden center and you are confronted with all sorts of amazing choices, how do you pick the best plants? To a certain degree, it depends upon the type of plant you’re trying to buy (buying a little 6 or 8 pack of annuals requires a lot less care ad concern than the choices you’ll make when selecting a tree, for example). But in general, there are some rules you want to follow when picking any plant, from the little 6-pack of annuals, to a tree or shrub, or even to a house plant in a grocery or box store.

The first rule is, choose the plant that looks most like the rest of the plants. What do I mean by that? Perhaps another way to say it is “don’t choose a plant that stands out from the others.”

There’s a good reason for that: one plant, or a group of plants, may stand out from the others, because there’s something wrong with it (or them).

Now obviously good garden centers (and even box stores) are going to want to pull diseased, dying or otherwise unhealthy plants off the sale floor. But in the middle of a busy May day, sometimes that doesn’t happen fast enough. And if you happen to get to the garden center at just the wrong time, and you are unfamiliar with the plant, what might look like a great weeping variety could turn out to be a plant with vascular wilt. Ugh.

Worse yet, back when hosta mosaic virus was first becoming known, all these cool, mottled hostas were showing up in the trade. It was only later that they were discovered to have a virus. The virus wasn’t visible to the eye–but it could infect other plants in the garden.

A similar thing happens with orchids, which is why orchid societies caution folks to only obtain orchids from reputable, virus free growers.

So while a plant that looks different may really be cool and different, it may also be a problem for you and your garden. If you’re not sure about what you’re getting, leave that plant behind.

More on this on Monday.

Plant Buying Time

We talked a little bit on Friday about plant buying and weather. I threw in an off-hand comment that in my experience garden centers will often get in plants 2-3 weeks before it’s safe to set them out or in the ground.

That may have made some of you indignant, thinking that the retailers were setting you up to fail. I promise you it’s not that way at all. For one thing, when I worked at a garden center, it was a constant balancing act between the needs and wants of our customers and the weather. We wanted to be able to have what they wanted when they wanted it–and yet we often had to warn them that what they were buying wasn’t quite ready to go outside or in the ground.

I know that I start trolling the garden centers trying to find something–anything–that’s alive and green right about now. It doesn’t matter to me what it is or whether it’s ready to go outside. I know how to handle it.

Last year I bought some heuchera right just about this time. I was so excited to find them. When I got them home and went to transplant them–just from the black plastic nursery pot into a more decorative pot–all I had was a tiny root ball in my hand about the size of a tennis ball. I had paid for a gallon pot plant and I got a tennis ball plant and some very expensive potting soil. Oh well. My fault. That’s what happens when you’re over-anxious to be gardening.

My recollection is that one of them didn’t even survive. It may have been one of the dark colored ones. They never work out well for me, and my anxiousness to get them started early probably didn’t help things along.

Remember that in the spring the soil is still cool–I talked about this in my last post. So it never pays to rush things into the ground. If I do shop early, I will usually keep things in pots to give the soil time to warm before I plant them (of course, I have been known to go to extremes with that and then it’s July and I still have a bunch of pots that I am watering that should have gone into the ground weeks earlier!)

Just remember–just because you see it in the stores, it does not necessarily mean it’s safe–or even desirable–to plant it in the garden just yet!

It’s Time to Garden!

Actually no–it’s nowhere near time to garden–not in my part of the country.

But when my sister sent me photos of tomato transplants at her garden center (she lives in Oklahoma) I realized that of course not everyone is gardening on the same schedule and I had better address some thoughts about plant buying if I wanted to try to reach early plant buyers (well, “early” to me, anyway!)

So here are my initial thoughts about what to look for when you first walk into a garden center or a big box store (and yes, as someone who has worked at a box store, I do buy plants there–but of course, I consider myself a fairly sophisticated buyer. We’ll talk about where to buy plants in another post).

First of all, it’s spring. And if you are a gardener–or even if you are not really, but you just like flowers–after not seeing a lot of them for awhile, once there are acres of them in sight, they  are really hard to resist! So what to do and how to choose?

The most important thing to think about is your weather. Is it really time to plant? Certain plants–perennials and that dubious category of “half-hardy annuals” can take things like a light frost or a light freeze. Most things are not going to take repeated hard freezes or, worst of all, heavy snows!

So there’s no point in planting too early, only to have to go back and re-plant. Garden centers love that. You are just wasting your money if you have to do that, however. And I don’t care who you are, no one likes to run out to repeatedly cover plants–or bring pots in and out of a garage or shed!

Remember what I have said in the past: the soil is very slow to warm up in the spring. In the old days, the farmers would wait until they could walk on it bare foot (or sit on it bare bottomed).

Other ways to tell if your last frost has passed is if the oaks have leafed out. If they have, your last frost has passed.

Some folks use the last full moon but I haven’t found that quite as reliable as the oaks for me. But maybe I haven’t been paying enough attention–or perhaps oaks work better in my part of the country.

However you determine your temperatures, just keep an eye on them if you are planting as soon as the garden centers are selling the plants. I find, generally, the plants come in at least 2-3 weeks before it’s safe to set them out.

More about this on Monday.

 

 

Want Real Confusion? Try Biennials!

Last week I made a reference to biennials followed by the phrase–“don’t even get me started!”

This is a confusing group of plants–weeds included–that sends up foliage in the first year, then flowers in the second year and then usually, but not always, dies. Confused yet?

The reason I say usually but not always is that a true biennial will do exactly as I’ve just described. But some biennials have been crossed with perennials to make them into short-lived perennials so that we can grow them as garden flowers. It doesn’t mean they’re going to be old reliables like peonies or perennial poppies or things that folks find growing long after evidence of homes, gardens and farms have long crumbled into dust. But at least they’ll survive a few years in the garden–and they might set seed and self sow if we gardeners weren’t so meticulous about deadheading and mulching our beds into death every spring!

Let’s take some examples. Something everyone should know is parsley. Parsley makes its great crop of leaves in the first year–that’s what we harvest all season long. If you leave it in the garden, it should over-winter in all but the harshest climates and the next season it will send up flowers that look much like dill or carrot flowers, because that’s the family to which it belongs.

Because I grow so much parsley for my pollinators, occasionally I’ll leave some in the garden and let it flower in the second year. The tiny bees like the flowers. But don’t try eating the leaves. At that point they’re tough and bitter.

I talked about weeds. I’m a weed geek and love identifying them. One of my favorites has always been mullein. It grows in the garden as verbascum and has been crossed with other species from different parts of the world (like the digiplexus I talked about last week to make it a perennial.

Out in the “wild,” so to speak, this thing is a great weed. Different varieties of it can grow up to 8′ tall. Even our relatively ordinary variety, verbascum thaspus, is no shorty, topping out between 4-6.’ Here’s a post I did a few summers ago when I was doing a weed series. In the photos you can see both forms of it, the first year basal rosette, and the second year flower cluster.

Now that it’s been “civilized,” it comes in all sorts of lovely colors: purples, corals, pinks, peaches, white–you get the idea. It makes a lovely garden plant.

Other plants that were once true biennials and have been bred to be garden perennials are foxgloves and hollyhocks. But if you are having problems with these, particularly with foxgloves, it pays to let them go to seed–and not to be too religious about weeding around them early the next year.

I hope that helps clear up some confusion. Always remember–gardeners aren’t born with this knowledge! We have to learn from each other.